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A struggle for Mideast middle way

Summit's decision yesterday not to cut ties with Israel dissatisfied ordinary Arabs.

By Cameron W. Barr Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 23, 2000



CAIRO

In 1967, the young nation of Israel - then just 19 - stunned the world by trouncing its Arab neighbors and seizing vast stretches of their territory.

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Thirty-three years later, the Arab states still have very little idea what to do about the American-backed powerhouse in their midst.

This weekend's summit of 22 Arab League members, held in Cairo, put on display the paradox of the Arab view of Israel: The region's leaders agree that they don't like the Israelis, but their sense of unity wanes when they try to devise a common strategy for dealing with the Jewish state.

Even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's recent attempts to rally his brethren around the idea that Israel threatens Jerusalem's Muslim shrines seem not to have had much impact here.

"Arab unity does not exist," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "It keeps collapsing in the face of every major crisis."

The summit was flush with rhetorical condemnations of Israel, but little strategic coherence emerged from the first meeting of Arab heads of state in four years.

The absence of a unified, hard-line Arab strategy will probably be good for the restoration of the peace process, since it may keep the Israelis from hardening their own position. Even so, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced yesterday that Israel would take a "timeout" from peace negotiations.

The Arab leaders issued a communique yesterday ending any form of regional cooperation with Israel and calling on Arab governments not to establish any new state-to-state ties with the Israelis. But multilateral cooperation is already on hold, and it would have been hard to conceive of any state expanding relations with Israel in the current environment.

Limited actions

There was no talk of using oil as a weapon, nor were Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries to have signed peace deals with Israel, asked to cut or curtail their ties.

The Libyan delegation walked out in frustration halfway through the weekend meeting. Israel's top spokesman immediately described the summit's outcome as "a victory of wisdom."

Saudi Arabia proposed a $1 billion aid effort to help the Palestinians, and Tunisia announced yesterday the closure of offices that facilitate its trade with Israel. But these were perhaps the toughest measures of the weekend.

Analysts say that the "Arab street," a reference to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have occurred throughout the Middle East in recent weeks, will not be satisfied by the leaders' response to Israel's handling of Palestinian unrest. In more than three weeks of clashes 122 people have been killed, all but eight of them Arab.

"The people on the street are expecting a very tough stand from the summit," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at Damascus University in Syria, one that matches the "spirit of intifadah," the Arabic word for uprising.

Professor Shukri says the Arab leaders have failed their citizens and that political ramifications will ensue. "The intifadah in Palestine will be contagious," he says. "The feeling of disappointment with Arab leaders is widespread."

Mr. Arafat himself was well short of militant in remarks on Saturday and offered special praise of President Clinton. Shukri says that the frustration on the street also extends to the longtime leader of the Palestinian movement.