Summit exposes depth of the Arab world's disunity

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IN THEORY, everything was going the Arabs' way. Pakistan had produced the first "Islamic bomb" - which was certainly Iran's description of the nuclear tests near its border - and even Washington was expressing impatience with Israel's right-wing government. But then the Arabs decided to hold yet another summit - and promptly proved that they are as divided as ever.

Arab unity is, of course, a long-extinct beast that last breathed, ironically, under the Ottoman empire. But Israel's continued settlement expansion and refusal to accept America's proposal for a 13 per cent Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, did at least give the emirs, princes and dictators of the Middle East the chance to speak with one voice. And they blew it.

First it was Jordan and Syria that disagreed. The Jordanians do not want to harm their own peace treaty with Israel by breaking relations with the nation which sent its assassins to Amman less than a year ago to murder a Hamas leader. King Hussein believes that holding Israel to the letter of its agreements with the Palestinians is more worthwhile than damaging Jordan's own bilateral relations.

But the Syrians didn't want a summit. Without real preparations, the Syrian news agency Sana announced, an Arab summit would "turn into a media circus"; there were already a series of Arab resolutions blaming Israel for failing to abide by the terms of the "peace process" which, Sana added, would have changed American and European policies if they had been applied. After the original 1991 Madrid summit, based on Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land, there had been "neither peace nor even the semblance of peace," the Syrians said.

Several Arab states would like to reimpose the boycott of all companies doing business with Israel but those other nations which have opened relations with Israel - Oman, Qatar and Morocco - do not want to destroy them, even though they have frozen contact since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996. As for Yasser Arafat, he has now conceded so much to the Israelis that he is, in the eyes of many Arab states, hopelessly trapped - at risk of losing his tiny gains if he breaks his own relations with the Israelis, unable to gain further concessions if he keeps to his side of the "peace process".

At the Euro-Med summit in Palermo last week, the Arabs did manage to persuade the Europeans that progress in their own partnership depended on the progress of the Israeli-Arab "peace"; Israel had tried to separate the explosive crisis in the Middle East from other aspects of European- Mediterranean co-operation.

All the same, it must have come as a relief to the Arabs when they heard that the United States wanted them to postpone their summit until Washington had decided whether any further pressure could be put on Israel to abide by the withdrawal agreements.

Washington's "leverage" over Israel, however, is about as mythical as Arab unity; and Mr Netanyahu is as blithe as ever in dismissing his critics. Israel's latest rebuff was directed at President Jacques Chirac who declared in Beirut a week ago that Israel must abide by the terms of UN Security Council resolution 425 and withdraw its troops from southern Lebanon unconditionally.

An Israeli spokesman claimed last week that Mr Chirac's "interpretation" of 425 was at odds with that of the rest of the world, a statement that mystified the Arabs as much as it did the French. Israel wants to set conditions prior to its withdrawal from Lebanon, including the disarming of its Hizbollah guerrilla enemies. But resolution 425, as Mr Chirac correctly pointed out, does not permit any conditions to be laid down.

A day after Israel expressed its anger with Mr Chirac, an odd incident occurred in southern Lebanon when the French delegate to the five-power ceasefire committee - which meets regularly at the UN's headquarters on the frontier - was met by gunfire from a member of Israel's proxy South Lebanon Army militia. The gunman fired into the air with a sub-machine gun as the Frenchmen and his UN escort passed a checkpoint on the coast road south of Tyre. No one was hurt, although the French noted that it was the second incident of its kind in less than a month.