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A struggle for Mideast middle way

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

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"The feeling of Palestinians is one of defiance," says the Syrian lawyer. "They are trying to say, 'Old man, we hold you in respect, but watch it.' "

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Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa insisted yesterday that "we are angry," and "we mean business." But more than a dozen speeches by Arab leaders on Saturday demonstrated the wide variety of Arab views about Israel.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh eloquently called for jihad, or holy war, while Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, insisted that peace was the only way forward.

Syria's new leader, Bashar al-Assad, gave an intellectual discourse calling for a strategic rethink of the peace process. He cited war as an option, but said he was not calling for one. "We can't be in the middle," he said. "We're either with the killers or with the killed, and no one should doubt our position."

But lots of doubts about the Arab position were already emerging yesterday, as Palestinian radical groups and mainstream commentators alike condemned the summit's outcome.

"It's not a matter of satisfying the street," says Egypt's chief spokesman, Nabil Osman. "The summit ... detects the pulse at the street level, and at the same time has to respond to unfolding developments." He praises the communique for not including "irrational sentiments" such as calls for holy war, and says it is "not just a document of words, but of action."

The document asks the UN Security Council to establish a "war crimes tribunal" to review Israel's actions, but an American veto will undoubtedly stop such a measure in its tracks. The Arab leaders also called for a UN-sponsored international committee to review the violence, but the UN's human rights commission has already expressed its intention to look into the unrest, and Israel and the Palestinians will conduct their own fact-finding efforts, which will be reviewed by the US.

Criticism of US

Jordan's leader, King Abdullah II, also defended the peace process in his Saturday speech, and perhaps because he could say little about Israel, voiced strident criticism of the US-led embargo of Iraq.

Several leaders criticized the US, directly or implicitly. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud said the US "as sponsor of the peace process, has special responsibility for the collapse of this process."

The Saudis announced the establishment of two funds for the Palestinians. One to aid the families of those killed in the recent violence, and another to promote the "Arab and Islamic character of East Jerusalem." Saudi Arabia will provide $250 million to get the funds going.

US credibility in the Arab world has suffered ever since President Clinton emerged from failed peace talks at Camp David in July and blamed the Palestinians for an unwillingness to compromise for peace.

Now the Arabs want to see the US condemn Israel for what appears to them to be a disproportionate use of force in responding to Palestinian demonstrations. Several leaders invoked the name of Mohammed al-Durra, a 12-year-old shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Sept. 30, and an emerging icon in the Arab world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society