Arab leaders inch toward unity

At two-day summit this week, Arab leaders voted to help the Palestinians with $40 million monthly.

The Arabs are slowly getting it together - on the surface, at least.

At a summit meeting of Arab leaders here this week, Iraq and Kuwait came closer than ever to reconciling their differences. The Syrians and the Palestinians took steps toward repairing their strained relationship. And the Arabs as a whole came up with the most concrete expression of unified support for the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the intifada - $40 million a month for the next half year.

"This is the beginning of a process that will lay the groundwork for more mature inter-Arab dealings," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the University of Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies.

But as always in matters of diplomacy, appearances of comity mask profound disagreements. Although the summiteers worked for days to engineer an Iraqi-Kuwaiti rapprochement, in the end it was not to be.

Iraqi officials would not accept a reconciliation plan that reportedly included the acknowledgement that some 600 Kuwaitis remain unaccounted for 10 years after the 1991 Gulf War. According to Jordanian press accounts, the plan also required Iraq to fulfill United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the country to prove it is no longer capable of producing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.

For their part, Kuwait and the other Gulf states are still wary of the intentions of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah did not even attend the Amman summit, reportedly because of worries that the event would favor Iraq.

It may also be true that the Arabs want to wait until the Bush administration completes its review of policy toward Iraq before adopting any unified positions on the matter. But there was little discussion here of ongoing US efforts to revise UN sanctions against Iraq. An "Amman declaration" issued by the summit called for an end to the sanctions.

There were strong condemnations of Tuesday's US veto of a Security Council resolution calling for an international observer force to protect Palestinian civilians.

"The Arab leaders expressed their total rejection of the American pretexts in this regard and called on the UN Security Council to provide the necessary protection to the Palestinian people," said outgoing Arab League secretary-general Ismat Abdel Meguid, reading from the summit communique.

Arab unity has always been much more of a dream than a reality, in part because of the economic, political, and even tribal differences that divide the Arab states of the Middle East and Africa.

At times when they haven't been able to find anything else to agree on, the leaders of these countries have been able to decry Israel and vouch verbal support for the Palestinian people. This summit was no exception - it seemed that every speech addressed the Palestinian predicament.

Even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, participating in the summit as an observer, said "the international community and the Arab world have every right to criticize Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory and for its excessively harsh response to the intifada."

One tie that binds

Mr. Annan also urged the Arabs to acknowledge Israel's right "to exist in safety" and said doing so would speed a negotiated settlement of Israeli-Palestinian differences.

This sentiment was apparently lost on many of the leaders in attendance. Izzat Ibrahim, head of the Iraqi delegation, spoke of Palestine as stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, a view of the region's geography that rules out the existence of an Israeli state. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the Israelis are more racist than the Nazis were.

The Arab League - whose 22 members were represented at the summit - agreed on a $240 million package to help support the Palestinian Authority (PA). At an emergency summit held in Cairo last October, the Arabs announced a $1 billion program to benefit the victims of the intifada and to promote the Islamic character of Jerusalem.

At that time the Arabs shied away from directly funding the PA, in part because of concerns over how their money might be spent. But the arrival in power of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has changed things. "The election of [Mr.] Sharon," says Dr. Hamarneh, "has made it difficult for people to talk about corruption."

So the emergence of unified Arab action in support of the Palestinians can at least be seen as a function of Israeli politics. Syria's President Assad, criticizing the divisiveness that has characterized the Arab response to Israel, with some governments forging peace deals with the Jewish state while others persist in calling for holy war against it, decried the notion of waiting to see what Sharon will do in the weeks and months ahead.

"What does 'give him a chance' mean?" he asked his fellow leaders. "Is this to allow him to be able to kill more Arabs or to force us to give him more" in negotiations?

One of the summit's most interesting developments was a meeting between Assad and PA President Yasser Arafat. Mr. Assad's late father, Hafez al-Assad, ostracized Mr. Arafat for trying to reach a separate peace with Israel, further eroding the notion of unified Arab struggle. But Bashar al-Assad says he wants to forget the past.

But Robert Pelletreau, a former US diplomat with long experience in the Middle East, says efforts toward rapprochement between Iraq and Kuwait and between the Palestinians and the Syrians have to be seen with skepticism.

"In an atmosphere like this," he says, referring in part to a half-year of Israeli-Palestinian violence and in part to the dynamics of summitry, "there are a lot of pressures toward superficial rapprochement."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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