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Commentary: Can The Arab States Finesse This One? (Int'l Edition)

International -- European Business

Commentary: Can the Arab States Finesse This One? (int'l edition)

For extremists in the Middle East, the Arab summit that ended in Cairo on Oct. 22 was a bust. While Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa warned Israel, "We mean business," the group took very little specific action. Radical Palestinian groups and traditionally belligerent countries such as Iraq and Libya, which are safely distant from Israel, blasted the proceedings. The toughest move, ironically, came from moderate Morocco, which severed its diplomatic ties to Israel on Oct. 23.

In one sense, the summit showed how much has changed in the Middle East since the last major Arab-Israeli war in 1973. The economic and military gap between Israel and the Arab countries has widened. The American commitment to Israel remains strong, and there is no Soviet Union to counterbalance the U.S. The summit underlines "the impotence of the Arabs and the overall American dominance," says Mohamed Heikal, a prominent author and a former adviser to late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.FOLLY. Arab leaders realize that a war with Israel would be folly--as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been saying publicly. The Egyptians, who hosted the meeting, have so far resisted even modest steps such as recalling their Ambassador from Tel Aviv. They want to keep the door to peace talks open and don't want to scare off investors in their own fragile economy. Syria, once Israel's staunchest foe, also took a surprisingly mild tack. The 34-year-old Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, warned against "taking empty decisions which will only lead to more deaths." In a sign that that message may be getting through, Palestinian and Israeli security chiefs were to meet on Oct. 25 to try to calm things down.

Still, Arab leaders find themselves in a nasty bind. They may want to avoid a confrontation with Israel, but they are facing pressure from their constituents to do more to help the Palestinians. Arab governments are "very scared," says Robert Mabro, director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. They are praying everyday that no one pushes them to do something drastic.

People across the Arab world are growing restive. On Oct. 23, Jordanian security forces had to use tear gas and water cannon to disperse demonstrators who had gone to the border to protest Israeli actions. In Egypt, Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party is doing less well than expected in ongoing parliamentary elections. Unless this crisis is defused, says Heikal, "We are going to see a tidal wave of anger." Tahsin Bashir, a veteran Egyptian diplomat, even raises the specter of a Kosovo-like situation in which armed international intervention is required.

The region hasn't become anywhere near that hot yet, but several new factors have analysts worried. Unlike in the intifada, or uprising, of the late 1980s, the Palestinian police and some other groups are armed. That's leading the Israelis to turn their rifles on the protesters, causing heavy casualties and further inflaming Palestinians and the wider Arab public. The Israelis' use of tanks to shell a Palestinian village just outside of Jerusalem to retaliate for shots into the city marks a further escalation. Arabs watch all this on television, especially through the Qatar-based satellite channel, Al-Jezira, a kind of Arabic CNN.

Another explosive element is the centrality of Jerusalem's holy sites to the current dispute. That energizes extreme religious groups on both sides. It also puts pressure on the Saudis, whose legitimacy rests on their guardianship of Islam's sacred places, to do something. So far, they've agreed to pony up $250 million for families of Palestinian victims and to preserve the Arab identity of Jerusalem.

The Saudis, Egyptians, and other moderate Arabs must be furious at Palestinian National Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for trapping them in this situation. But they're apparently afraid to criticize him in public. They would, however, be well-advised to lend their full support to President Bill Clinton's moves to stop the violence. They have lots to lose if Arafat's game of chicken with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak isn't halted.By Stanley Reed; London Bureau Chief Reed Covered the Summit from Cairo.

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