BERLIN, Dec. 27 (UPI) -- The Annapolis process may very well be the biggest chance for peace in the Middle East since the signing of the Oslo Accords in Norway some 15 years ago, according to a Western diplomat.
"And why is that so? Because for the first time, all leaders, including (U.S. President George W.) Bush, are very engaged in the process, and there is a clear negotiations structure," a senior German government source closely linked to the issue said earlier this month at a trans-Atlantic talk held in Berlin.
Bush is scheduled to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories early next month to add additional political muscle to the peace process.
The diplomat added that there were big chances for success also because leaders from several Arab countries back the peace process out of fear of the growing power of Iran.
"They don't want Iran to become too powerful," he said.
The diplomat also said, however, that the U.S.-led efforts that began with the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., in November were but a mere continuation of a process launched by the German government during its EU presidency in the first half of 2007.
At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier agreed to revive the so-called Middle East Quartet, comprised of the United States, Germany, France and Russia, to see if there was any chance for peace in the region.
"No one wanted to take the initiative, but we wanted to revive the peace process with the help of the Quartet," the diplomat said. The first politician in Washington to back the idea was U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "followed by Bush, who had been reluctant at first."
The Quartet met several times in Berlin before the German government then also included both conflict parties: Israeli and Palestinian leaders first joined the Quartet sessions in May.
"We wanted to move from international accompanying to a real negotiation process," the diplomat said.
The fruitful meetings culminated in a final attempt to formalize the negotiations: The Germans for the end of June were planning to set up a peace conference in Egypt's popular holiday resort of Sharm-el-Sheik, in a setting that was nearly the same as the one from Annapolis. But then, at the last minute, the conference was canceled when Hamas took over power in the Gaza Strip.
While Washington now spearheads the Annapolis process, the German government behind the scenes continues to aid the negotiations by mediating between the conflict parties, "always in close coordination with the United States and Israel," the diplomat said.
He added that the negotiations in the past have not been fruitful because the people in the Palestinian territories have not seen their living standards improve. A senior German lawmaker said at the same event that Germany could help in another area -- the integration of an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 Arab refugees who may settle in a Palestinian state. Because of Germany's reunification, which included the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Germans, "we have experience in managing that," the lawmaker said.
And Europe may also have to do its part.
Once the negotiations come into full swing and peace agreements are reached, the European Union needs to "help that the ordinary people actually see improvements," the diplomat said. That means reviving the EU action plan for the Palestinian authorities. The problem that remains is called Hamas. The radical group has seized power in the Gaza Strip and at a recent large commemoration vowed not to renounce violence.
"We need to isolate the radical nucleus of Hamas," the diplomat said.
Over Christmas, religious leaders all over the world singled out the Middle East as an area peace should return to as soon as possible.
The Catholic leader in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, joined that call:
"This land of God cannot be for some a land of life and for others a land of death, exclusion, occupation, or political imprisonment," he said on Christmas Eve in a sermon in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.