At the crossroads to peace and war in the Middle East

Rarely have the lines in the Middle East's sands been drawn so distinctly. Arrayed on one side is the peace-seeking camp that opposes militant extremism and favors direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. On the other are the organizations, many of them surrogates for Iran, that work to undermine moderate governments and violently impede any effort for peace.

Recent events have revealed the dimensions of this divide. On the same day last month that the Arab League authorized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to move from proximity talks to direct negotiations with the Israeli government, Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired a Grad rocket at the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. This week, as the Obama administration joined with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders in urging Abbas to act on the Arab League's instruction, terrorists launched rockets from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula into Jordan and Israel.

Finally, in an attack this week characterized by State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley as "wholly unjustified and unwarranted," Lebanese snipers shot and killed an Israeli commander, a father of four, who was overseeing routine tree-pruning maintenance on Israel's side of the northern border. A second officer was seriously wounded. Although the maintenance work was fully coordinated with the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, and the fatal shot was fired by the nominally independent Lebanese Armed Forces, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, sent a television crew to film the ambush. He applauded the murder as a "heroic confrontation" and threatened to "cut off the arm" of Lebanon's enemies, ostensibly by firing his Iranian- and Syrian-supplied arsenal of more than 42,000 rockets at Israeli cities and towns.

Israel retaliated against these attacks by striking hostile targets in Gaza and Lebanon. At the same time, however, the Israeli government reiterated its commitment to advancing swiftly to discussions on all the core issues: borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. In an effort to "create a more comfortable climate for the start of direct talks between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan. Both Arab leaders expressed their support for the direct negotiations.

In a further effort to generate conditions conducive to peace, the Israeli government consented this week to participate in a United Nations panel on the so-called flotilla incident. On May 31, Israeli forces clashed with members of a Turkish extremist group who were trying to break the maritime blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. The panel, chaired by the former prime minister of New Zealand and the outgoing Colombian president, includes Israeli and Turkish representatives; it will review the investigations conducted in Israel and Turkey and recommend ways of avoiding such confrontations in the future.

All of these events are occurring against the backdrop of heightened sanctions against Iran. These strictures, particularly those that impede Iran's ability to import and export petroleum products, are beginning to show signs of having an impact. Many observers feel that, when confronted by the sanctions' implacability, the Iranian regime will opt to negotiate or, according to an alternative scenario, trigger a Middle East war. Such was the case in 2006 and 2008, when Iran instructed Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively, to initiate hostilities against Israel.

This is the moment that the direction of the Middle East may be determined, whether the region moves toward escalating tensions, possibly leading to further violence, or toward face-to-face negotiations and concerted efforts to reduce animosities. Much will depend on the Palestinian Authority's willingness to enter direct talks as well as on the steadfastness of pro-Western governments, in the region and beyond, to stand up to Iran and its proxies.

Summer is traditionally a time of war in the Middle East. This summer, however, might well prove the reverse -- the crucial junction toward peace. Israel stands at this intersection prepared to defend itself but also ready to make the sacrifices and hazard the risks to end the conflict definitively. The line has indeed been drawn in the Middle Eastern sand. The coming weeks may show which way it will shift.

Michael B. Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.