Media reflect divisions among Arabs

LONDON, Dec. 19 (JTA) — Not surprisingly, Arabic-language media have been preoccupied with the dramatic resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

Predictably, too, many of the analyses included a torrent of rhetorical flourishes, conspiracy theories and dire warnings of divisions and duplicity within the Arab world.

Perhaps most instructive was what the official Syrian media were telling their own people about last week’s talks in Washington between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Turki Saqr, editor of the ruling party daily al-Ba’ath, stuck closely to the script of Syrian President Hafez Assad when he pledged that Damascus would strive for a successful conclusion to the talks.

He also reminded his readers that Syria would give up “not a grain of its soil or a drop of its water” in the resumed negotiations.

The resumption of talks, he noted, might be important in themselves, “but even more important is their success in achieving their aims.”

Syria was resuming the battle of peace with no less — and perhaps even more — confidence and resolve than it had displayed on the battlefield.

Syrian officials “went to the White House carrying a just cause for which it sacrificed its resources and shed its people’s blood over 50 years.

“And it is continuing the struggle for this cause, using all of its political and diplomatic resources at a time when there appears to be a historic opportunity to recover its lands and rights,” Saqr wrote.

Meanwhile, addressing a predominantly Palestinian audience, Abdelbari Atwan, editor of the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi, was scornful of Sharaa’s declaration during last week’s opening ceremonies at the White House that an Israeli-Syrian- Lebanese peace would herald a “dialogue of civilizations” and “an honorable competition” in the spheres of politics, culture, science and economics.

“As far as one can tell,” wrote Atwan angrily, “this means he recognizes that there is an Israeli civilization on par with Arab civilization. That’s something that bears clarification from Syria’s chief diplomat.”

Atwan saw red when it came to Sharaa’s declaration last week that an Israeli-Syrian peace would mean “the end of a history of wars and conflicts” in the region — without a resolution of the future status of Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

And even if all those issues were resolved, Atwan insisted that an end to the state of war between Arab governments and Israel would not mean an end to the state of war between the Arab people and the Jewish state.

“The Arab governments that are signing up to peace are not democratically elected,” he declared, “nor did they conduct referendums on their peace moves.”

The editor of Cairo’s semi-official daily al-Ahram, Ibrahim Nafei, said Egypt feared that Israeli-Syrian negotiations would sideline the Palestinian track. He called for an Arab summit to ensure that all tracks moved forward in tandem.

While the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks was “a positive, indeed historic, step,” noted Nafei, a close confidant of President Hosni Mubarak, he said there were “widespread concerns” that Israel might be seeking to play the various tracks off against each other.

There was an urgent need for Arab leaders to coordinate their positions and prevent what Egyptian Foreign Minister Amre Moussa had described as “competition between the tracks.”

“The least the Arab states can do is to start serious preparations for convening an Arab summit, not just to discuss the challenges raised, but also to reorder the Arab home and overcome the disputes among some of its components,” Nafei added, a clear reference to the poisonous atmosphere prevailing between Damascus and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

This point was picked up in the Persian Gulf daily al-Khaleej by analyst Mohammad Sid-Ahmad, who noted ironically that while the Arab world anticipates an early meeting between Assad and Barak, “there remains no prospect at all of a meeting between Assad and Arafat.”

His nightmare scenario centers on the possibility that, in the rush to declare peace before he leaves office, President Clinton will be satisfied with Israel reaching a deal with Syria and Lebanon, while leaving most of the West Bank and Jerusalem in Israeli hands, the settlements in place, and the refugee, water and border issues unresolved.

“What would happen then? It will be announced worldwide that peace has been established, and all that remains are ‘details’ which can be overcome in the climate of mutual trust created by the resolution of the main issues.

“Hopes will then be pinned on the region being inundated with aid money to offset the causes of discontent and rejection, and the remaining problems will be deemed too minor to undermine the achievements made.

“The question is, will the plans to abort the conflict of the century in the Middle East in this way be successful? Will the so-called ‘culture of peace’ erase the memory of history?

“And will it make any sense at all to speak of peace, liberation and victory when the Arabs have reached such an unprecedented degree of division and disarray?”

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