Consensus eludes Muslim leaders
Nicosia, Cyprus — Fifty miles from the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, center of the world of Islam, Muslim leaders this week drew up their problem list -- a list certain to attract the attention of President Reagan's Mideast policymakers.
On it are Jerusalem, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gulf, and the presence of the superpowers in the background.
But so fractured is the Muslim world that, except for the unity forged against Israel, consensus was elusive on these issues. And follow-up action is considered doubtful.
Converging on the homeland of their faith, the 37 delegates, all national leaders (for Islam incorporates politics), embraced as one family. But even together under one roof in the conference city of Taif, the embrace could not last, as if to prove the Arabic saying: "My brothers and I against my cousins, but I against my brothers."
Disagreement occurred over the seriousness of communist Russia's invasion of Muslim Agfhanistan. While others were condemning the Soviets, Syria's President Hafez Assad, himself Soviet-backed now, recommended the conferees recognize the Babrak Karmal government in Afghanistan.
While others were calling for mediated settlement of the Gulf war between Iran Iraq, President Assad was indirectly blaming Iraq's President, Saddam Hussein, for starting it. Furthermore, President Hussein's offer to end the war and withdraw in return for Iranian concessions fell largely on deaf ears, since Iran was not present.
The Hussein offer may have been posturing anyway, since only 12 hours earlier his forces attacked Iranian oil installations at Kharg Island.
The Palestinian cause, of course, is the great unifier of Muslims. But even here there were disagreements over method.
Delegates reconfirmed support of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yet because there is no border other than Lebanon through which PLO guerrillas are allowed to operate, moral and material assistance to the PLO meant going counter to a plea by Lebanese President Elias Sarkis.
Mr. Sarkis, a non-Muslim allowed to attend because of the large Muslim population in his country, asked for an end to the violence that is plaguing southern Lebanon. In so doing, he implicitly sought an end to PLO operations that invite Israeli retaliation.
But there were agreements at Taif, the main one an endorsement of Saudi King Khalid's call for jihad (holy war) against Israel.The 42 member states (pariahs Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iran were not in attendance) are committed to using "military and economic resources" to "free Jerusalem from Israeli occupation," according to reports from the conference.
Economic measures were promised against any country that recognizes the Israeli claim to Jerusalem.
There was no specific response to the Israeli government's recently revealed plan to build 10 new settlements on the occupied West Bank, which theoretically could increase the Jewish population in that region from 17,000 to 30,000.
Aside from encouraging the PLO, there seems little that Muslim states can do to counter the Israelis. Jihad against Israel has been pronounced many times before, most recently by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd last summer. A military attack on Israel could come only via Syria and Lebanon, since Jordan will not allow operations out of its territory.
While an economic Jihad has been in effect since 1948, use of the oil weapon against Israel's allies has been foresworn by Saudi Arabia, the major oil power in the Muslim world.
In Washington, State Department spokesman William Dyess this week confirmed that the United States "commitment to Israel and to other friendly states in the area remains very firm, and we do not expect any significant change in our relationship with these countries.""
But a regional status quo has existed since the Camp David process slowed down last year. Most Mideast analysts expect new developments by summer. These could include:
* The long-awaited European Community peace proposal.
* A new government in Israel with a softer line.
* A still-possible spillover of the Gulf war.
* Spread of the Afghanistan fighting into Pakistan, or negotiations between Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq and Mr. Karmal or the Soviets.