Sunday, December 02, 2007

NEW YORK TIMES [NYTimes Group/Sulzberger] - By Steven Erlanger - November 25, 2007

ANNAPOLIS, Md., Nov. 27 - The Middle East peace conference here on Tuesday was officially about ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But there was an unspoken goal just below the surface: stopping the rising regional influence of Iran and Islamic radicalism.

That is why, despite enormous skepticism about the ability of the Israelis and Palestinians to reach a final peace treaty, there is enormous relief among the many Sunni Arab countries in attendance that the United States has re-engaged in what they see as the larger and more important battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

"The Arabs have come here not because they love the Jews or even the Palestinians," said an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They came because they need a strategic alliance with the United States against Iran."

Hovering over Annapolis are deep anxieties over the challenge from a resurgent Shiite and non-Arab Iran, with its nuclear program and its successful allies and proxies in southern Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Those Arab nations fear that the tide of history is moving away from them, and that they are losing their own youth to religious militancy.

"There is a genuine concern and fear among political classes in the Arab world that the Islamic trend hasn't reached its plateau," said Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya television. "They worry that Iran and its allies act as if this may be the beginning of the end of America's moment in the Middle East."

Those concerns are linked in the minds of the region's leaders to the Palestinian issue, he said. "They want to try for a resolution to an Israeli- Palestinian conflict that has always been the focal point for mobilization of Islamic and radical groups," he said. - - - -

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