Mahmoud AbbasBy Philip Stephens

Sometimes international conferences are significant just for the fact that they take place. Jack Straw, foreign secretary, volunteered the thought on the eve of this week’s meeting in London to support the Palestinian Authority. My instinctive reaction was that here was a politician playing the familiar game of massaging expectations. The gathering, with its script written in advance and one of the principal actors absent from the stage, was doomed to disappoint. Mr Straw wanted to let us down gently.

In the event, the reality was otherwise. True, a conference in which Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, met representatives of 20-odd governments and several multilateral institutions lacked the usual grand gesture. In place of the vaulting rhetoric, the final communiqué was filled with gritty detail about structures of governance, security arrangements and microeconomics. As expected, the Israelis stayed firmly in the wings.

There is never a right moment to be lost to optimism about the revival of a Middle East peace process. Only a week ago, a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv offered an ugly reminder of its fragility. Israel responded with restraint and Mr Abbas was heard to condemn the perpetrators as “terrorists”, a description that would not have fallen from the lips of Yassir Arafat. But what if the death toll, as it was in Baghdad a few days later, had been 120 rather than five?

For all that, this week’s meeting mattered. The backcloth was propitious- a popular uprising in Beirut, the growing isolation of Syria and small stirrings of change in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is premature to sweep these up, as have some in Washington, into a single narrative of democracy on the march. Each has particular roots. The hyperbole that imagines the region will soon be an exemplar of western-style democracy is brutally punctured by the US state department’s latest report on human rights. The grim picture of repression, human rights abuses and torture, practised by friends as well as enemies of the US, testifies to an authoritarian culture of power at any price.
Yet the Middle East is becoming a different place. The world’s sole superpower is unwilling any longer to accept the status quo. That of itself is a powerful agent for change. Images beamed by Arab satellite television, first of the Palestinian and Iraqi elections and now of the public clamour for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, are shaking the authoritarian preconceptions of the old order. Behind the scenes, the world-weary cynicism about the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is giving way, if not to optimism, then at least to glimmers of hope.

The Palestinians’ fear about the London conference, one not entirely assuaged by the event itself, was that it could become a substitute for direct negotiations with Israel. The demand that Mr Abbas should first establish the architecture of a viable Palestinian state threatened to impose a new set of conditions on one side and thus undercut the process of even-handed confidence-building envisaged in the internationally sponsored “road map”.

There is something in that. By absenting itself from the talks (although taking a detailed interest in the final communiqué), Ariel Sharon’s government seemed to confirm a preference for the unilateral approach in which it has framed the planned withdrawal from Gaza. It is evident also that Israel wants much more from Mr Abbas in terms of action against Palestinian terrorist groups before it begins substantive, or final status, negotiations. The flip side of that coin, of course, is that Mr Abbas needs political and practical concessions from Israel in order to assert his authority over the armed groups.

The other reality, though, is that the measures in the London communiqué – to rationalise Palestinian security, build robust judicial structures and rekindle economic development – are indeed what Britain’s Tony Blair called foundation stones for a credible Palestinian negotiating position. While only a few months ago they might well have been seen as a poor alternative to negotiations with Mr Sharon, they can now be seen as a link in a chain running from the Sharm el-Sheik summit to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and, possibly towards the end of the year, the opening of final-status talks.

Two things have changed. The first is an, albeit still cautious, belief in the international community that George W. Bush has indeed come to appreciate the centrality of peace between Israel and the Palestinians to his broader ambitions to spread democracy in the Middle East. Mr Blair has long said as much. What is different now is that during his recent European tour the US president went some considerable way to persuading other leaders, including France’s Jacques Chirac, of the seriousness of his intent. One European diplomat at the London conference was heard to say that Mr Bush’s resolve seems, if anything, understated by Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state.

This shift in the international mood – witness again the close co-ordination between Ms Rice and Michel Barnier, France’s foreign minister, to apply maximum pressure on Syria – has been accompanied by something else- a re-evaluation of Mr Sharon’s intent. During his talks with European leaders in Brussels last month, Mr Bush insisted that the Israeli prime minister was committed to a two-state solution – that his objective was “Gaza first” rather than “Gaza last”. This week, one previously deeply sceptical European foreign minister said that he had taken the same message from his own recent visit to Tel Aviv. Mr Sharon, this minister concluded after what he described as a candid encounter, now saw his own place in history in signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

All this, of course, is atmospherics. It does not begin to address the hard choices and costly compromises Israelis and Palestinians would be obliged to make in any final settlement. It ignores the constraints on Mr Abbas and Mr Sharon alike and presumes both have the strength and vision to deny a veto to extremists on both sides. So the safest prediction remains one of failure. Yet events have robbed such pessimism of its certainty. I heard someone say that the representatives of Arab governments at the London conference had been oddly reticent. Perhaps, as they watched the television images from Beirut, they too realised the world had changed.