Peace Talks in Korea, Mideast Raise Hopes


Sometimes when things cannot seem to get any worse, they suddenly and unexpectedly get better. About 18 monts ago, the radical regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il successfully tested a crude atomic weapon, confirming the worst fears of the international community that such a despot would gain weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, Israel fought an inconclusive 34-day war in Lebanon, against the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah which failed to gain the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers taken by Hezbollah and by Hamas in Gaza. To make matters worse, the ultra-radical Islamist terrorist group Hamas roundly defeated the Fatah forces of the hapless Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, taking over the entire Gaza Strip and putting it in the hands of a group which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist or any previous Palestinian-Israeli agreement. These situations in the Far East and the Middle East were indeed deeply upsetting to the international community and represented a direct threat to Western and American interests. Added to these concerns was the increasingly threatening rhetoric from the radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who continued to defy the United Nations resolutions demanding that Iran stop enriching weapons-grade uranium, while the Iranian leader repeatedly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and hosted a conference of Holocaust deniers.

While the above situations did not bode well for world peace, some surprising developments of the past few weeks have revived at least some basis for cautious optimism that progress toward peace on both fronts could be emerging. Over the past several weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have held a series of face-to-face meetings to lay the groundwork for the regional Middle East peace conference to be hosted in Washington by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to which leaders of the more moderate regimes in the region have been invited, plus Syria. Among those invited are Egypt and Jordan, which have formal full peace treaties with Israel; Saudi Arabia and the the Gulf States. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special Middle East peace envoy for the so-called Quartet seeking a full peace is also expected to attend. The Quartet consists of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, who are in agreement that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved on the basis of the creation of a new Palestinian Arab State to live side-by-side with Israel in peace and security.

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The rise of the radical Shia regime in Iran and its partnership with Hezbollah in Lebanon has given rise to fears among the mostly Sunni Arab states of a “Shia Crescent” which could threaten the stability not only of those regimes, but of the entire region. Nations like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have come to realize that they have nothing to fear from a democratic and pro-Western Jewish State of Israel, but do have much to fear from radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and their radical allies. Secretary of State Rice has also wisely invited the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad to take part in the conference.

In addition to the foward movement in the Middle East, the presidents of South and North Korea held a summit meeting in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang for three days of talks. The meeting was only the second between presidents of the divided peninsula since the nation was partitioned. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with North Korean President Kim Jong-Il for the three days of talks which dealt with economic and peace issues. The two leaders signed a formal agreement to work toward a peace treaty to officially end the Korean War which stopped with an Armistice back in 1953. Days after the two Korean leaders met, North Korea announced that it would disable all of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year, in a move that the White House and State Department hailed as a diplomatic victory that could serve as a model to defuse the nuclear weapons crisis with Iran. The North Korean agreement, which was announced last week in Beijing, sets out the first specific timetable for the North to disclose all of its nuclear programs and disable all facilities in return for 950,000 metric tons of fuel oil or its equivalent in economic aid.

While it may be too early to celebrate real breakthroughs toward lasting peace regarding the Israeli-Palestinian and North-South Korean talks, it is certainly appropriate to take note of these events as offering some of the first authentically encouraging moves to come out of the Far East and the Middle East for the past several years. In this season of High Holidays and Festivals, we can express both gratitude and hope over these indications that the world may at last becoming a safer place.