A struggle for Mideast middle way

Summit's decision yesterday not to cut ties with Israel dissatisfied ordinary Arabs.

In 1967, the young nation of Israel - then just 19 - stunned the world by trouncing its Arab neighbors and seizing vast stretches of their territory.

Thirty-three years later, the Arab states still have very little idea what to do about the American-backed powerhouse in their midst.

This weekend's summit of 22 Arab League members, held in Cairo, put on display the paradox of the Arab view of Israel: The region's leaders agree that they don't like the Israelis, but their sense of unity wanes when they try to devise a common strategy for dealing with the Jewish state.

Even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's recent attempts to rally his brethren around the idea that Israel threatens Jerusalem's Muslim shrines seem not to have had much impact here.

"Arab unity does not exist," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "It keeps collapsing in the face of every major crisis."

The summit was flush with rhetorical condemnations of Israel, but little strategic coherence emerged from the first meeting of Arab heads of state in four years.

The absence of a unified, hard-line Arab strategy will probably be good for the restoration of the peace process, since it may keep the Israelis from hardening their own position. Even so, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced yesterday that Israel would take a "timeout" from peace negotiations.

The Arab leaders issued a communique yesterday ending any form of regional cooperation with Israel and calling on Arab governments not to establish any new state-to-state ties with the Israelis. But multilateral cooperation is already on hold, and it would have been hard to conceive of any state expanding relations with Israel in the current environment.

Limited actions

There was no talk of using oil as a weapon, nor were Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries to have signed peace deals with Israel, asked to cut or curtail their ties.

The Libyan delegation walked out in frustration halfway through the weekend meeting. Israel's top spokesman immediately described the summit's outcome as "a victory of wisdom."

Saudi Arabia proposed a $1 billion aid effort to help the Palestinians, and Tunisia announced yesterday the closure of offices that facilitate its trade with Israel. But these were perhaps the toughest measures of the weekend.

Analysts say that the "Arab street," a reference to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations that have occurred throughout the Middle East in recent weeks, will not be satisfied by the leaders' response to Israel's handling of Palestinian unrest. In more than three weeks of clashes 122 people have been killed, all but eight of them Arab.

"The people on the street are expecting a very tough stand from the summit," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at Damascus University in Syria, one that matches the "spirit of intifadah," the Arabic word for uprising.

Professor Shukri says the Arab leaders have failed their citizens and that political ramifications will ensue. "The intifadah in Palestine will be contagious," he says. "The feeling of disappointment with Arab leaders is widespread."

Mr. Arafat himself was well short of militant in remarks on Saturday and offered special praise of President Clinton. Shukri says that the frustration on the street also extends to the longtime leader of the Palestinian movement.

"The feeling of Palestinians is one of defiance," says the Syrian lawyer. "They are trying to say, 'Old man, we hold you in respect, but watch it.' "

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa insisted yesterday that "we are angry," and "we mean business." But more than a dozen speeches by Arab leaders on Saturday demonstrated the wide variety of Arab views about Israel.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh eloquently called for jihad, or holy war, while Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, insisted that peace was the only way forward.

Syria's new leader, Bashar al-Assad, gave an intellectual discourse calling for a strategic rethink of the peace process. He cited war as an option, but said he was not calling for one. "We can't be in the middle," he said. "We're either with the killers or with the killed, and no one should doubt our position."

But lots of doubts about the Arab position were already emerging yesterday, as Palestinian radical groups and mainstream commentators alike condemned the summit's outcome.

"It's not a matter of satisfying the street," says Egypt's chief spokesman, Nabil Osman. "The summit ... detects the pulse at the street level, and at the same time has to respond to unfolding developments." He praises the communique for not including "irrational sentiments" such as calls for holy war, and says it is "not just a document of words, but of action."

The document asks the UN Security Council to establish a "war crimes tribunal" to review Israel's actions, but an American veto will undoubtedly stop such a measure in its tracks. The Arab leaders also called for a UN-sponsored international committee to review the violence, but the UN's human rights commission has already expressed its intention to look into the unrest, and Israel and the Palestinians will conduct their own fact-finding efforts, which will be reviewed by the US.

Criticism of US

Jordan's leader, King Abdullah II, also defended the peace process in his Saturday speech, and perhaps because he could say little about Israel, voiced strident criticism of the US-led embargo of Iraq.

Several leaders criticized the US, directly or implicitly. Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud said the US "as sponsor of the peace process, has special responsibility for the collapse of this process."

The Saudis announced the establishment of two funds for the Palestinians. One to aid the families of those killed in the recent violence, and another to promote the "Arab and Islamic character of East Jerusalem." Saudi Arabia will provide $250 million to get the funds going.

US credibility in the Arab world has suffered ever since President Clinton emerged from failed peace talks at Camp David in July and blamed the Palestinians for an unwillingness to compromise for peace.

Now the Arabs want to see the US condemn Israel for what appears to them to be a disproportionate use of force in responding to Palestinian demonstrations. Several leaders invoked the name of Mohammed al-Durra, a 12-year-old shot dead by Israeli soldiers on Sept. 30, and an emerging icon in the Arab world.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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