Emotions hardening across Arab world

At a Cairo summit this weekend, Arab leaders will discuss their response to Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Here in Jordan - the Arab country that enjoys the most cordial relations with the Jewish state - the notion of peace with Israel is encountering the sort of popular approval that witchcraft enjoyed in Salem.

A group of professional associations here is vowing to publish next week a "black list" of Jordanians who have had dealings with Israelis.

The only way off the list, the group's leader says, is for individuals to apologize publicly for their perceived misdeeds.

"We're doing this in light of recent events," says the group's president, Saleh al-Armouti, referring to three weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

"And because Israel is the enemy and remains the enemy," Mr. al-Armouti adds.

As Arab states meet this weekend in Cairo to fashion their response to the strife between Israelis and Palestinians, Jordan's situation illustrates just how difficult it is for many Arab leaders to promote peace with Israel.

The "Arab leaders are trying to use the summit to defuse a pretty hot and emotional situation in many of their countries," says Robert Pelletreau, a former Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for the Middle East. "The demonstrations are ostensibly in support of the Palestinians, but there are elements of them that are against the regimes" themselves.

While many leaders may see the strategic benefits of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and getting on with improving their economies, many of their citizens continue to see Israel as a nation of interlopers that should not be tolerated, much less courted as a peace partner.

Balancing what they see as their long-term goals with the demands of protesters will be priority No. 1 for the leaders meeting in Cairo.

Arab governance ranges from dictatorship to limited democracy, so leaders tend to regard any mass movement with suspicion. Calls for a change in policy can often give vent to desires for a change in government than cannot otherwise be expressed.

Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, signing a treaty in 1979. President Anwar Sadat incurred the wrath of extremist Muslims, who assassinated him in 1981, largely because of his peacemaking.

Inspired in part by the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 1993, the Jordanians signed their treaty with Israel the following year.

Jordan and Israel set out to create a "warm" peace - relations that would contrast with the frosty state of affairs that prevails between Israelis and Egyptians.

But the Israeli-Jordanian peace never made it past tepid, and three weeks of Palestinian-Israeli violence has put the government on the defensive. "When you see people being killed in this way," says one government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, "nobody can speak about [peace]. It's indecent."

Still, he says, "the official position is that we have a peace treaty with Israel and we cannot accept ... measures" such as the black list. The government has held to its policy of encouraging the "normalization" of relations, but it has also delayed sending a new ambassador to Israel.

After a series of pro-Palestinian demonstrations two weeks ago, the government banned public rallies, a move that critics say contravenes Jordan's Constitution. Roughly two-thirds of Jordan's population are of Palestinian origin, so the renewed violence between Israel and the Palestinians prompted an immediate and heated response here.

Abdul Lateef Arabiyat, an Islamist politician and former speaker of Jordan's lower house of Parliament, says that "no one can raise his face and say I am with this 'normalization,' especially in this time."

He heads a group opposed to relations with the "Zionist enemy" that has published a poster depicting the death of Mohammed al-Durra, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in Gaza. "You normalizers," the poster reads, "you bought the bullet that killed this child."

Mr. Arabiyat notes that Jordanians have grown increasingly disenchanted with their ties with Israel during the six years since the treaty was signed. Mostly, he says, Jordanians have felt that the peace process has yielded few benefits for Palestinians.

In trade and investment, the area where peace-minded Israelis and Jordanians hoped to build an "infrastructure" that would turn the tide of public opinion, progress has been slow. According to Israeli estimates, total trade between Israel and Jordan in 1999 was a mere $40 million.

Arabiyat denigrates one Israeli-Jordanian industrial zone that Israeli officials tout as a model for other cooperative ventures. The Israelis "took the benefits - water, electricity, cheap labor costs - put their stamps on saying the products were 'made in Israel' and sent them to other countries. What benefit does Jordan get from that?"

"Ask him," counters Israeli embassy spokesman Roey Giladin Amman, "if he can provide jobs to the 5,000 individuals who work there?"

Mr. Gilad acknowledges that the "black list" threat from the Council of Professional Associations is a setback, although he says the group has not followed through on previous promises to publish the list.

There has been a fair amount of parliamentary activity calling for various censures against Israel and one abortive measure to abrogate the peace treaty. But commentators here say it is unlikely that King Abdullah II and his government will change their minds about Israel.

"The government will only change its policy ... if all the Arab countries unite together," says Ghazi al-Saadi, who runs the private Dar al-Jalil Center for Studies here. He calls for "a new official and national position" to urge Israel to change a policy that is "unfair to Palestinians."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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