Foreign ministers from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria Were touching up a cease-fire plan with leaders of Lebanon's warring parties when the news came of an Israeli attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor center near Baghdad.
"It dominated discussion afterwards," a Western diplomat reports. "It completely shifted everyone's attention."
This was the effect of the Israeli air raid June 7 -- one of a series of Israeli surprises the past two months that have caused outrage, a degree of solidarity, but mostly confusion in the Arab world.
The upshot of the Israeli air attack on Iraq's Osirak research reactor will, says a Western analyst, be negative as far as Arab-American relations and peace in the region are concerned. These will be the immediate effects:
* Saudi Arabia, which had been trying to mediate the Syrian-Israeli tension, will have to back off. An analyst says: "The Saudis will have to shift completely [because of] this air attack." The Saudis and other Arabs will do this at a meeting of Arab League foreing ministers later this week in Baghdad.
* The northern Lebanese Phalangists will see little need for flexibility, knowing that the Israeli military is on their side. Thus the tenuous cease-fire worked out June 8 in Leba nonBashir Gemayel was one of the most difficult parties to sell on the cease-fire.
* United States special envoy Philip C. Habib, who was due to arrive in Beirut June 9, now is riding into the face of universal Arab outrage at Israel and at the US as Israel's patron. Israeli air, sea, and commando raids on Lebanese coastal areas while Mr. Habib was in Washington the past fortnight brought charges of US-Israeli collusion -- charges Washington denies as it denies foreknowledge of the Israeli attack on Baghdad.
Mainly, however, the unpredictability of Israeli behavior has been underscored -- perturbing Western officials stationed in the Arab world and sending a sobering message to leaders such as Syria's President Hafez Assad that , although the Syrian-Israeli dispute has become low-keyed in recent days, the Israelis are capable of surprise.
"You cannot rule out a surprise attack on the missiles [Syria stationed in Lebanon in late April]," an analyst says.
Like a boxer put off balance by a spate of unexpected punches, the Arab world is reeling from recent Israeli acts. Arab reaction is outward condemnation and I-told-you-sos. The raid on Baghdad "was not surprising," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said shortly after it was revealed.
But Arab-watchers say there is resignation that Israel's clear military superiority -- and the Arab world's many internecine disputes -- prevent a united, decisive Arab reaction.
Egypt, the most militarily powerful Arab nation, is out of the picture due to its peace treaty with Israel, and Cairo- Baghdad ties are improving, although they are still not very strong.
Jordan and Syria are extremely distant because of animosity between Mr. Assad and King Hussein.
Syria and Iraq have no diplimatic relations. Syria is aiding Iraq's enemy, Iran, and there is bitter Rivalry between the Damascus and Baghdad wings of the Arab Baath party.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf nations, and the north African Arab nations are relatively weak and more concerned with problems in their own areas.
Libya is an outcast everywhere except Syria.
Still, this new development will be to Syria's benefit and will cause a further closing of Arab ranks. As one analyst says: "It won't be much, but Arabs will have to draw together more in the face of a common threat."
The challenges to the Arab world have come thick and fast recently. In mid-April Israeli officials announced they were supplying arms to "the Christians of Lebanon" (i.e., the Phalangists) and intended to fight for the Phalange if necessary, thus making Israel a direct party to the Lebanese free- for-all.
On April 28, Israeli jets destroyed two Syrian helicopters operating in Lebanon -- a direct slap at Mr. Assad, whose forces have been in Le banon under an Arab League mandate.