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Arab moderates get their way for now


JERUSALEM, Oct. 24 (JTA) – As far as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is concerned, Arab leaders failed to deliver the goods.

At the end of their two-day meeting last weekend in Cairo, the leaders issued a resolution blaming Israel for the ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But they did not call on Arab states to sever their ties with the Jewish state.

Neither did the prolonged violence prompt them to call for a renewal of the Arab boycott on Israel. Nor were there any threats of a unified military stance against Israel.

Even Yemen’s hard-line president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who described Israel as “a cancerous growth in the Arab nation,” failed to offer any military commitments to his Palestinian brethren.

Professor Yosef Ginat of Haifa University said the summit embodied a paradox.

“The Palestinians were the issue” that brought the Arab leaders together, “but Arafat played only a secondary role at the summit.”

The “Al-Aksa intifada” that began late last month provided the reason for convening the summit. But it soon developed into a contest over who holds sway over the Arab world: the moderates or the extremists, those who have nothing to lose or those who have everything to lose.

Predominant among the moderates are Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab states that have signed peace treaties with Israel.

The leaders of both nations have been concerned about what might happen if the intifada spills over into their territory.

As millions have taken to the streets in anti-Israel demonstrations throughout the Arab world, Egyptian officials have worried that the rage orchestrated by Muslim fundamentalists could be diverted against them.

And in Jordan, King Abdullah is well aware of the threat posed to his regime by his Palestinian subjects, who make up more than two-thirds of the population of the Hashemite Kingdom.

“The scope of unrest in the Arab world is so terrible that no Arab leader can actually ignore it,” said Arye Gus, Arab affairs correspondent for Israel Radio.

The relatively moderate resolution issued at the summit was passed thanks mostly to the efforts of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But his efforts were not the result of any particular love for Israel.

It was heavy American pressure, with thick hints of possible difficulties in passing U.S. aid to Egypt, that motivated the Egyptian leader.

Egypt receives an $2 billion in aid each year from the United States – aid that some members of Congress have questioned, depending on how constructive Egypt has been in the peace process.

Since it peace agreement with Israel, Jordan receives millions of dollars in aid. On Tuesday the United States and Jordan were signing a new trade agreement that Jordan has long sought.

But in contrast to the leaders’ relative moderation, there have been angry demonstrations in Egypt and other Arab states over the summit resolution.

While officials in Egypt and Jordan appear able to weather such demonstrations, other states – including Oman, Tunisia and Morocco – have bowed to Arab pressure and severed relations with Israel.

In the case of Morocco, the recently enthroned King Mohammad is “too weak to stand the pressure of extremists and continue business as usual,” said Gus.

Another inexperienced leader, President Bashar Assad of Syria, did not take any chances by siding with the moderates. Instead, he adopted a hard line against Israel.

“Internally, Assad played it safe,” said Eyal Sisser of Tel Aviv University. “No one can charge him with neglecting the Palestinian cause.”

The summit proved “that the people on the streets have a lot more influence than the leaders would like to admit,” Sisser said.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s announcement this week that he is taking a “timeout” from the peace process as long as the violence continues has intensified anger across the Arab world.

Arab moderates interpreted the statement as a slap in their faces. Just afther they had passed a moderate resolution at the summit, Barak was acting as if he was no longer a partner to the peace process.

The Jordanian paper A-Rai wrote Monday that such statements lead the Arabs “to think of other options.”

Syria’s official Tishrin daily reported Tuesday that Barak’s statement had “taken the mask” off Israel, which “is preparing the ground for a military adventure.”

As the prospects for peace dim amid the continued fighting in the West Bank and Gaza, observers are somberly assessing what may come next.

According to Sisser, any of the three main pieces in the regional puzzle – the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Lebanon – could explode and drag the entire region into conflict.

Israeli officials have expressed concern over calls for an Arab war, and they have reportedly increased surveillance of Lebanon and Syria.

They are also concerned that Hezbollah, which according to reports has amassed hundreds of Katyusha rockets in southern Lebanon, could spark a confrontation.

So far, while there have been no troop movements in either Egypt or Syria, Iran and Iraq have been urging war.

According to local reports, the Iraqis have deployed one to five divisions in western Iraq, some 60 miles from the border with Syria. This has reportedly prompted warnings from U.S. officials that they will bomb any threatening Iraqi troops.

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