Israel Gets Genial Arab Bloc While Arafat Gets a Nudge To Squelch Islamic Militants
SPARKED by the unprecedented weekend summit attended by Israel and three moderate Arab leaders, stalled peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials resume here today ahead of a new round of Middle East diplomacy.
The summit, initiated by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, failed to achieve specific solutions to the ailing Israel-Palestine Liberation Organization accord, but appeared to unite the leaders in pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat will meet at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza on Thursday, and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher will meet with foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and a PLO representative in Washington on Feb. 12.
The summit restored Mr. Mubarak as a key player in peace efforts and consolidated a rapprochement between Mr. Arafat and Jordan's King Hussein.
Signs of rapprochement in four key areas emerged:
*A joint statement condemning ''bloodshed, terror, and violence'' consolidates an Arab-Israeli alliance against Islamic violence.
* A commitment by the four to pursue a nuclear- free zone in the Middle East could defuse the escalating confrontation between Israel and Egypt over Egypt's refusal to sign the extension of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty unless Israel commits itself to doing so in the future.
* The leaders recommitted themselves to a Middle East peace, despite lack of progress on the expansion of Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the redeployment of Israeli troops there ahead of Palestinian elections.
*The leaders endorsed a Middle East Development Bank proposed last year at a Morocco summit.
Rabin told Israeli radio that he and Arafat had agreed on criticizing Syria for harboring Islamic militants, such as Islamic Jihad leader Fathi Shikaki, who claimed responsibility for last month's bombing near Tel Aviv that claimed 21 Israeli lives.
''They see what is happening in Palestine with the rise of Hamas [an Islamic group opposed to peace with Israel], and they realize they cannot afford a faltering of the process,'' says Egyptian columnist Mohammed Sid Ahmed.
But some Egyptian commentators say it is premature to propose such an alliance against Islamic militants, while Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and provides Hamas with an excuse for use of violence against the Israeli military occupation.
Islamic militant leaders rejected the declaration issued at the summit, and Hamas described it as a last-ditch effort to draw Arafat into a head-on confrontation with the Islamic movement.
Rabin spoke enthusiastically about the formation of a new ''bloc for peace'' as the central achievement of the summit that would have lasting implications for peace in the Middle East.
But in the short term, the summit is likely to strengthen Mubarak's insistence that the normalization of relations between Israel and some of the Gulf and North African states should be delayed until there is progress on the Palestinian track.
Israeli officials portrayed the summit as a setback for Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad who won Egyptian and Saudi Arabian backing for his terms for a peace accord with Israel at a summit attended by Egyptian, Syrian, and Saudi Arabian leaders in Alexandria, Egypt, in December.
But Egyptian Foreign Minister Moussa reiterated that Egypt backed Mr. Assad's demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
Ahmed said that the summit marked the end of a long era in which Israel dictated to its Arab neighbors by force. ''The stick approach will no longer work,'' he says. ''Israel has to convince its neighbors that its presence in the Middle East is more beneficial than its absence.''