Israeli bid to rescue Arab ties

Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met yesterday with President Mubarak.

Amid mounting regional fears of a major Israeli military campaign in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres offered words of reassurance to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Arab world yesterday.

"I told the president that we do not have any interest to attack the Palestinians. We don't have any intention whatsoever for either a ground attack or to attack [Yasser] Arafat," Peres said after talks with Mubarak in Cairo.

But leaders in Egypt, the first country to forge a peace treaty with the Jewish state, and Jordan, which followed suit in 1994, are not easily assuaged by Peres's pronouncements. The Nobel laureate's assurances coincide with the Isreaeli military's most forceful actions yet. The violence has pushed a month-old, US-brokered cease-fire to the brink of total collapse.

To many Israeli observers, Peres's advocacy of diplomacy within a charged national mood has taken political courage - and is one of the main barriers standing in the way of an Israeli military onslaught.

Seen from Cairo and Amman, however, Peres's role is far less benevolent. Even if he wants to moderate policy - and that is not taken for granted - Arab analysts say that he has no real influence over Ariel Sharon, as evidenced by large-scale house demolitions, mounting casualties and fatalities, and a return to a policy of assassinations.

His harsher critics say he is serving as a fig-leaf, using his dovish reputation and optimistic pronouncements to distract the international community as his government tries to coerce the Palestinians and pushes the region toward possible disaster. Which side is right may be reflected in the amount of blood spilled in the months ahead.

Another reason for the lack of resonance of Peres's peaceful statements is that his diplomacy comes amid signs of mounting support in Israel's cabinet for a military strike that would cripple, or perhaps eradicate the Palestinian Authority (PA) and possibly lead to the expulsion of Arafat. (During his diplomatic trip to Cairo, Peres held unscheduled talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, although he refused to disclose details of the meeting.)

Jane's Foreign Report reported last week that following the next major Palestinian suicide attack, the Israeli army would seek to destroy PA fighting forces in an offensive using about 30,000 troops.

Peres said the report, which rang alarm bells in the Arab world, was "baseless." But a minister from his Labor Party, Dalia Itzik, said last week that support in the cabinet is "mounting and increasing" for a large-scale military operation, though she too discounted the Jane's report.

Politics of warfare

According to Palestinian reports, 90 Palestinians were injured Friday in the West Bank city of Hebron by Israeli tank shelling, heavy machine gun fire and settler violence that came in the wake of attacks that killed Jewish settlers Yehezkel Muallem and David Cohen. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted yesterday by Israel Radio as saying Israeli forces would respond to shooting attacks even when no one is hurt.

Arab analysts believe that regardless of what Peres says, Sharon will orchestrate a major military offensive in order to impose unfavorable peace conditions on the Palestinians.

"A large-scale attack is expected," says Hala Mustafa, an analyst with the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. Adds Radwan Abdallah, a Jordanian political scientist: "All the signs unfortunately point to this direction."

"There is no comfort whatsoever from Peres," says Mr. Abdallah, the political scientist, in Amman. "We have seen him do these trips thousands of times before. People here are surprised that Peres and the Labor Party are still in the government, when they should be censuring it in parliament. Peres has basically just gone along with Sharon."

Fighting felt in Jordan

Jordan, whose population is mostly of Palestinian origin, has much to lose from an Israeli military campaign, he adds, though it is unlikely to engage in fighting because of Israel's overwhelming power. "This is a country with a unique relationship to the Palestinians. Any explosion in the West Bank is bound to have serious ramifications economically, strategically and demographically."

Egypt, predicts Mustafa, would be caught between its peace treaty commitments and its responsibilities as the largest Arab state. An Israeli military campaign "will embarrass the regime in a very severe way and will damage the possibility of normalization with Israel for a long time to come," she says.

Despite Arab anger with Peres, he is sincerely interested in averting the military action that is widely feared, according to Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report. "He does believe in a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Middle East. And as foreign minister, he sees all of the international implications. He knows that any action would get wall-to-wall condemnation from the international community."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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