Hopes fade for Middle East peace

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IF BILL CLINTON saves his presidency, he will have lost the Middle East. For he has thrown away any chance of pushing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a deal with the Palestinians. He has lost any hope of persuading the Arabs to support his campaign against Iraq. He has let go any prospect of convincing the Egyptians or the Saudis or the Syrians of accepting Washington's brokership of the "peace process". The Arab-Israeli crisis is now in free fall.

For what has the American president done to keep the peace in the Middle East? He has reiterated his declaration of war against "terror" - what he calls the "threat to all humankind". Yet not a word has he uttered against the Israeli threat to annex the Israeli-occupied West Bank. No strategy has he devised against Saddam Hussein's refusal to cooperate with UN inspectors. No message of support has he provided for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who remains the most powerful Arab voice for peace.

And thus no wonder is it that Egypt plans to honour its 1973 victory over the Israelis at the Suez Canal rather than the 1981 Camp David peace accord. No surprise that he can find no UN members to take "drastic measures" against Iraq - and no chance that the Arab world is prepared to trust the Oslo agreement which has allowed Israel to build more Jewish settlements on Arab land. Osama bin Laden, in the heights of Afghanistan, must have been convinced - watching the videotape of Bill Clinton's testimony - that his war against the United States can be won without a fight.

Yasser Arafat, the PLO chairman, says that he will proclaim a Palestinian state next year (albeit that this will be the second time he has declared such a nation) - and Mr Netanyahu is now saying that Mr Arafat's declaration would "annul the [Oslo] accords". According to the Palestinian Authority, this would be a "declaration of war".

So stand by for Israel's reconquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As for Iraq, we have only to listen to Martin Indyk, US assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. "Today, outside the United States," he said last week, "not a single country in the world is calling for the use of force to respond to Saddam Hussein's latest refusal to co-operate."

Mr Mubarak is meanwhile planning a lavish celebration of the Egyptian crossing of the Suez canal a quarter of a century ago - complete with artistic, cultural and sporting events, the minting of special coins marking the Egyptian military victory, army bands, fireworks and the gathering of 20,000 military personnel and families of those killed in the 1973 Middle East war. The Egyptian warship which sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat will also participate in the celebrations.

As Mohamed Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram strategic studies centre in Cairo, says: "Arab public opinion ... wants to erase the memory of Camp David because of its extreme distaste for the totally unjust policies of the United States and Israel towards the Arabs."

In Damascus, the government daily newspaper Al-Thawra is saying what many millions of Arabs believe, however odd (or exotic) the theory may seem in the West: that Monica Lewinsky was working for the Israeli intelligence organisation Mossad, tasked to destroy American pressure on Mr Netanyahu to abide by the Oslo accords.

When the scandal broke, Ms Lewinsky, who is Jewish, stated publicly that she hoped it would not harm US relations with Israel. In the event, it has rendered Clinton so impotent that Washington would not dare oppose Israeli plans to enlarge Jewish settlements on Arab land - and thus contribute to the destruction of the Oslo agreement.

And what did Mr Clinton offer two days ago? An "anti-terror" pact - the thrust of his UN speech on Monday - that, while denying a Western- Islamic conflict, made it clear that the West's supposed enemies in the world were Muslim.

His speech, word for word, has been closely studied here, especially the following words: "False prophets may use and abuse any religion to justify whatever political objectives they have, even cold-blooded murder. Some may have the world believe that almighty God himself, the merciful, grants a licence to kill - that is not our understanding of Islam."

But the very word "Islam" showed what Mr Clinton was thinking about. The Arabs remember how, after the Israeli massacre at Qana in 1996 - a "tragic error" according to the Israelis themselves - the US president called the slaughter a "tragedy", as if it were some natural disaster. The tomb of the Israeli murderer of 29 Palestinians at the Hebron mosque is now a shrine - but this had no place in Mr Clinton's UN speech. True, he said there should be no "dividing line" between Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Serbs and Albanians - an interesting list since it suggested that Serbs were not Christians and Albanians were not Muslims - but in the Middle East, the message was clear: Muslim rather than non-Muslim men of violence were the world's enemies.