Israeli crackdown unites Arabs

Arab leaders, angered by US backing of Israel, call an emergency summit for Oct. 21.

Israeli troops may have fired the gun that killed Palestinian protester Marwan Shamalak Friday here in the Gaza Strip, but his father blames the United States.

Sitting on a plastic chair at a condolence pavilion overlooking the breezy Mediterranean, Abdul Razaq Shamalak channels his grief into a diatribe against America. The connection is simple: "The US is Israel's big supporter and provides the Israelis with guns and all kinds of weapons."

With the US-led Middle East peace process in jeopardy and Israel confronting a renewed threat on its border with Lebanon, Arabs are uniting in their anger at the tactics Israelis are using to contain the Palestinians' latest uprising. Arab states that have recently been enemies will meet later this month to discuss this issue.

But right behind Israel, in the eyes of Arab critics, are its American backers. The US, which just 10 years ago led a partly Arab coalition against Iraq, finds its diplomatic leverage in the Middle East undercut by a credibility gap not seen in decades.

In recent days, hundreds of thousands of protesters from Morocco to Kuwait have streamed into the streets, burning American and Israeli flags to protest what is widely perceived as Israel's use of excessive force.

Reacting to popular pressure, Arab leaders have hurriedly planned an emergency summit to be held in Cairo on Oct. 21.

This newfound Arab solidarity contrasts with the days following the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David, when Arab leaders rejected Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's requests for a summit.

The Cairo summit will mark the first time that Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have met at this level since the Gulf War, when Iraq's invasion of Kuwait shredded what little Arab unity existed.

Syria's new leader, President Bashar Assad, has also pledged to attend. In the past, the Syrians have opposed Arab summits on Palestinian issues in order to register their opposition to negotiating with Israel.

This burst of unity follows years of grudging accommodation with Israel, as Arab governments have recognized that the Jewish state isn't going anywhere.

Many of these governments want to move beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not relive it again and again. But the current atmosphere causes some observers to see old dynamics at work. "There is a sense of exhilaration in the Muslim world that Israel is on the run," says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia.

Over the weekend, Israeli security forces withdrew from a position they had maintained at Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus. And on Israel's border with Lebanon, Hizbullah guerrilla fighters kidnapped three Israeli soldiers in a well-organized raid.

For many Israelis, the "exhilaration" is an uncomfortable echo of past Arab attempts to capitalize on perceived Israeli weakness, as in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. "When the opportunity comes up to make Israel withdraw, to shrink its borders, or even to disappear, there's a tendency [among the Arabs] to go back to the myths that led everyone in '67 into a war nobody wanted," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

He worries about things getting out of hand. "There are religious forces, street forces, and opposition forces that see this as an opportunity for war," he says. "Unless the leadership prevents that, the Arab governments may allow themselves to be pushed into a war that is against their own best interests."

It's a suggestion that Arab analysts dismiss. There may be a sense that Israel is scrambling, says Mustafa al Sayeed, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, but Arab countries are well aware that "Israel has the most powerful military arsenal in the region, and it's the only country with nuclear weapons and missiles.

"The [Israeli] elite may be divided, and factions may be quarreling with each other," he says, "but when it comes to dealing with Palestinians or Arabs, they are united."

As Arab heads of state and their citizens rally for Palestinians and against Israel, anger at the US has also become a lightning rod. Feelings have reached such a pitch that one Western diplomat based in the region says US credibility here has not been so low in decades.

An erosion of US influence could handicap efforts by President Clinton to pull the peace process back from the abyss. Recent events have not helped. On Sunday in New York, the US abstained from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned "the excessive use of force against Palestinians," without naming Israel. While the US may have intended to send a message of impartiality by not vetoing the resolution, some Arab observers were not bowled over. "The US image has been dealt a real blow by its failure to go along with the UN resolution," says Mr. Al Sayeed. The White House is scrambling to set up a meeting between Mr. Clinton and the region's leaders, possibly in Egypt, this week.

The Western diplomat says that one problem has been a US inability to strike the right balance between criticism and protection of Israel on the matter of Israel's use of force against Palestinians.

Indeed, US efforts to strike such a balance may have been undermined by television appearances in which Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argued against "blame placing" and then seemed to fault Palestinians for the violence.

There are other roots to Arab anger with the US. Many Arab states are increasingly angry with the US hard-line stance on sanctions against Iraq. Such issues are helping to bring people into the streets of otherwise sedate places such as Oman and Morocco. "It shows there is a deep-seated frustration, and among some people, a level of anger [at the US]," says Edmund Ghareeb, an Iraq specialist at the American University in Washington.

But Mr. Pipes at the Middle East Forum says it isn't American credibility that is in jeopardy, but the US-supported peace process. "I don't think that anyone is seriously thinking that US power is diminished," Pipes says, but he notes that in times of crisis there is an "emotional conflation" of the US and Israel in Arab eyes.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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