Middle East: Arab nations stay away from talks in snub to Clinton

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The Independent Online
The Americans have advertised the Arab-Israeli economic conference in Qatar this weekend as a cornerstone of the Middle East `peace'. But it looks likely to turn into farce, Robert Fisk writes, because only four of the 21 Arab states intend to turn up.

Humiliation is not the word for it. President Bill Clinton was on the phone to the Saudis. Martin Indyk - former ambassador to Israel and formerly leader of one of the most prominent pro-Israeli lobby groups in the United States - toured the Middle East, pleading with the Arabs to attend. And the result? An unprecedented snub from Arab nations who believe the US has betrayed both the Middle East "peace" and the honest broker role which Washington originally claimed for itself in the Middle East.

Goodbye the Saudis, who have lost faith in the US's pro-Israeli stewardship of the Oslo agreement. Goodbye Syria, which suspects Israel will never give back the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. Goodbye Morocco, Washington's friend in the Maghreb. Goodbye Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain - headquarters to the US fleet in the Gulf - and goodbye Sudan and Libya and Algeria and even the Arab League. Goodbye Lebanon, theatre for the only remaining Arab-Israeli war. Goodbye the Palestine Liberation Organization - supposedly the beneficiary (with Israel) of the Oslo accords. And goodbye Egypt, whose President suggested that if US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to hear its views, it could always chat to the Egyptian ambassador to Doha, capital of the luckless Qatar which is hosting the conference.

No wonder the Americans are having second thoughts about attacking Saddam Hussein yet again for his intransigence. Would Oman and Yemen or Jordan turn up if they did? No wonder there comes only silence from the US State Department, whose acolytes have been travelling the Arab world for help. Only Qatar itself, Jordan - loyally proving the integrity of its peace treaty with Israel - Yemen and Kuwait are prepared to turn up for the conference that is supposed, in Washington's immortal cliche, "to put the peace process back on track."

Kuwait, still fearful of President Saddam, could be expected to turn up in Doha on Sunday. King Hussein of Jordan, despite the Israeli attempt to murder a Hamas official in Amman, wished to show its loyalty to the agreements it signed with Israel. Oman and Yemen - scarcely lynch-pins of the "peace process" - will take their seats, but Oman will send only a low-level economic delegation led by an undersecretary of the commerce ministry. This is the measure to which the hopes of a Middle East peace have fallen since Benjamin Natanyahu became Prime Minister of Israel and refused to give back Golan, built more Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land and denied the possibility of a Palestinian state.

The Israelis, of course, will be turning up in Qatar in force, led by David Levy, the foreign minister, supported by Mrs Albright and the US commerce secretary, William Daley. But as a symbol of future peace, the Qatar conference is a disaster. Blaming Mr Netanyahu for the collapse of the "peace process" - and those quotation marks are becoming ever more important - Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak has called the conference "meaningless". Barring last minute changes of heart, he is right.

No reference was made by the Arabs to Palestinian suicide bombs in Jerusalem. And the Israelis will be the first to suggest the Arabs are denying the very spirit of the "peace process". Moshe Fogel, the Israeli government spokesman, remarked dismissively that more than 90 per cent of Israel's trade is with "developed [sic] countries" - little over 1 per cent with the Arabs - and that it is the Arabs who will lose by boycotting the Qatar summit. In reality, it is US credibility that once again stands to lose, as American leaders fail, yet again, to force Israel to abide by the Oslo agreement.

International companies - Mobil, Occidental, Merck, Philips and Petronas - have contributed pounds 1.89m along with the Qataris for the conference, most of which is likely to prove a worthless investment. Qatar itself has been condemned by both Saudi Arabia and Egypt for holding the forum when Israel continues to build Jewish settlements on Arab land which is occupied. Or, in the dishonest words of the State Department, "disputed" land.