Arabs Walk a Fine Line in Opposing A Hawkish Israel
AMMAN, JORDAN — Arab nations - holding their first summit in six years this weekend - will try to unite against the hawkish stance of Israel's new government. But they will also try not to react so strongly that Israel takes irreversible, hard-line positions on Mideast peace.
The 21 Arab nations hope to warn the newly installed prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that stalling the peace process would be disastrous, diplomats in the region say.
In Cairo, however, the leaders will also try to convince Israel that peace can bring worthwhile results, particularly in security.
Anxiety over Mr. Netanyahu has risen among Arabs since his May 29 victory. The right-wing leader promises to alter the peace process - including the trading of land for peace - begun in 1993.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher urged Arabs not to be hasty: "During this period of transition, it is essential to avoid actions or statements that close doors and risk polarizing the situation and raising tensions."
Arab nations have had many disputes with each other since they last huddled in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Their divisions could play a critical role in Cairo.
Iraq is the only one of 22 Arab League members not invited to the summit, suggesting that so long after the Gulf war, and even in the face of a "threat" from Israel, most Arab states still consider the Iraqi leader off-limits.
Already Arab states are roughly divided into two camps that became more defined during mini-summits held immediately after the Netanyahu victory.
Jordan's King Hussein, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - all of whom are at various stages of peace with Israel - adopted a "wait and see" attitude at a June 5 meeting in Jordan.
But President Hafez al-Assad of Syria and the Egyptian and Saudi leaders, meeting June 8 in Damascus, Syria, issued a much more combative statement, demanding that Israel maintain the commitments of previous governments to a land-for-peace formula.
"If we had a decision in Cairo to throw a rock through the Knesset [Israel's parliament] tomorrow, before Netanyahu had the opportunity to give his view on how to proceed, that would cause a reaction that would not be helpful," said one Western diplomat.
Still, Arab "unity" on most issues is as divided as ever. "A lot of people just don't like each other," the diplomat said.
Syria, especially, has made clear that if Israel is no longer committed to peace - including a willingness to give up the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967 - then Arab states should freeze their relations with Israel.
In contrast, Jordan's King Hussein, speaking in Washington where he met President Clinton earlier this week, said he was "puzzled" by the harsh response from some Arab capitals. He and other proponents of peace are concerned that a tough Arab stance in Cairo this weekend would damage the peace process.
Relations between Jordan and Syria have deteriorated since Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994. Jordanian officials accuse Syria of fomenting "terrorism" in Jordan and claim to have foiled bomb plots, arrested suspects, and seized weapons and explosives meant to undermine the king's rule.
No Arab nation has embraced peace more readily than Jordan, nor does any have so much at stake in its success: More than half of Jordan's population is Palestinian, and it has the longest border with Israel of any Arab state.
Analysts believe that this tension between Syria and Jordan will be the main undercurrent at the Cairo summit. If Jordan chooses to make its complaints of Syrian terrorism public - as it has hinted it might do - then the summit's focus on Israel could change.
MR. Netanyahu and his Likud party have done little to calm Arab fears that Israel will not stick to its commitments toward peace. Though the new prime minister told the Knesset on Tuesday that he wanted to "widen the circle of peace" with Israel's neighbors, his government's policy guidelines - in Palestinian and Arab eyes - reverse Israeli peace policy. They are uncompromising and have sent shock waves through the Arab world.
The guidelines follow Netanyahu's campaign rhetoric and his plans to bring "peace with security" to Israel. They rule out the formation of a Palestinian state and vow to keep Jerusalem - which Palestinians view as their capital - under Israeli control. Settlements of right-wing Jewish families in the West Bank and Gaza, which had been stopped by previous governments as provocative, are to be expanded.
Palestinian leaders have reacted angrily, threatening to reignite violent intifadah protests if the government does not keep to a peace stance.
Netanyahu also vows that Israel will not withdraw from the Golan Heights, which effectively rules out negotiations with Syria. The reaction in the Syrian capital, Damascus, has also been strong.
"What kind of future is the peace process approaching after Netanyahu? And what would the Arabs negotiate with Israelis who allowed themselves to keep the land and plant it with [Jewish] settlements?" the state-run Syrian radio said Tuesday.
But a counterargument exists in Israel and some Arab capitals. It says that because of his hard-line credentials, Mr. Netanyahu - if he chose to - could make peace with Arab neighbors.
For now, though, that is only a dream for moderate Arab leaders. Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, a voice from the so-called "peace camp," said, "In effect [the Israelis] are breaching the contract. Peace-for-peace is not the same as land-for-peace."
This stance even among moderates means the summit could yield a damaging surprise. "If what comes out of Cairo is confrontational," said the Western diplomat, "if it is designed to provoke a negative reaction, if it is gratuitous, and if it complicates the peace process - then it will not be so good."