Arab world pulls Arafat two ways

President Clinton tries to move both parties 'beyond blame' at the Mideast summit, which began yesterday.

As Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sat with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for an emergency summit here yesterday, he was under intense pressure not just from President Clinton, who called the meeting in a last-ditch effort to defuse the Mideast crisis.

He was also feeling the heat from the whole Arab and Muslim world, where governments and popular sentiment are often tugging him in very different directions.

Arab leaders want an end to the violence that has pitted Palestinians against Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza for the past two weeks, claiming more than 100 lives - mostly Palestinian. Not since the Gulf War 10 years ago have their peoples' passions been stirred more dangerously.

But from Morocco to Kuwait, crowds of demonstrators, often violent, have been shouting their support for the Palestinians' latest uprising, and urging them on.

The summit started in this desert resort with limited goals - to secure a cease-fire. But with Mr. Clinton joined by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordanian King Abdullah, Washington clearly hoped such heavy diplomatic firepower would suffice to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians to resume their peace negotiations once the situation is calmer.

"We've got to move beyond blame," Clinton said as the summit opened. "We've got to focus on what we do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day."

Time for truce

A truce was urgent, as the violence in the Mideast continued yesterday and sent shockwaves worldwide: Stock markets have fallen; the price of oil has hit its highest levels for a decade; a US warship has been attacked, killing 17 sailors. In Europe and the US, synagogues have been bombed and burned. And an Israeli businessman - whom the Hizbullah says was an Israeli spy trying to penetrate its group - has been kidnapped by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed group based in Lebanon.

Mr. Arafat was reluctant to attend this summit: In the diplomatic chess game, he was forced by US pressure to move prematurely, while he wanted to wait until next weekend's conference of Arab leaders had convened in Cairo.

That Arab summit, he hoped, would give him renewed support in his bid to force Israel to make more concessions in peace talks - notably to offer the Palestinians greater rights over Jerusalem and the holy sites there.

Arafat also needs wide Arab support for any concessions he might decide to make.

"He wants to make progress in the peace process, but he needs other Arab states to share major decisions on Jerusalem," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian scholar at the Mideast Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "He wants shared responsibility."

Arab governments that have often paid little more than lip service to the Palestinian cause have been prodded into some action by the recent violence. Even Syria, whose government strongly opposes Arafat's peace talks with Israel, has sent medical supplies to those injured in the clashes.

Oman and Morocco have closed the Israeli commercial offices they had allowed as the Jewish state's relations with parts of the Arab world thawed in recent years.

But a four-year-old Arab League decision to cut all diplomatic and business ties with Israel unless the peace process yielded more results has never been implemented.

Jordan's King Abdullah, for example, is resisting strong calls to suspend diplomatic relations with neighboring Israel. After one youth was killed by Jordanian police trying to quell a demonstration last weekend, the government banned all rallies.

Feelings are also running high in Egypt, where popular sympathy for the Palestinians is deep. In Cairo, and all across the Arab world, TV viewers have been shocked to see Palestinians being killed in news footage carried by two satellite TV stations broadcasting from the Gulf.

"Wherever you go in the Middle East, people are watching Al Jazeera," based in Qatar, says Fahmy Howeida, an Egyptian political analyst. "People easily see everything on the air, and it is increasing anti-Israeli feelings."

Viewers in the United Arab Emirates, for example, donated $22 million to the Palestinians during a telethon last Friday.

Pressures on Arafat

Much of the popular sentiment, says Jordanian diplomatic expert Kamel Abu Jaber, is fueled by fears that Arafat may be pressured into accepting shared sovereignty with Israel over the Haram al Sharif in Jerusalem, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, where two Islamic mosques now stand where the second temple once stood.

"When it comes to the religious dimension, no one can compromise," says Dr. Abu Jaber, head of the Institute of Diplomacy in Amman.

The strong currents of emotion sweeping both Palestinians and the broader Arab public make it hard for Arafat to make concessions, even on the limited questions on the table here, such as the Israeli demand that he re-arrest Islamic radicals who were let out of Palestinian jails last week.

The Palestinian leader himself fed his people's hopes as he left his Gaza headquarters for the summit, promising them that "we are on our way to Jerusalem" where one day a Palestinian child would plant the Palestinian flag on the walls of the old city, seized by Israel in 1967.

At the summit, however, Arafat was under intense pressure from Clinton and Mubarak to be as moderate in his demands as they could make him, leading many people in the Arab world to worry that he would give too much.

To win an Israeli military withdrawal from Palestinian areas, for example, "what conditions will Arafat accept?" Mr. Howeida asks. "Whatever he accepts here, the Arab summit will not be able to decide differently, and I'm afraid this summit will put a frame around the Arab summit."

Cameron W. Barr contributed to this report from Jerusalem.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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