American veto at UN infuriates Arab world

MIDDLE EAST TURMOIL: Clinton orders ambassador to block Security Council move condemning Israelis' land-grab in east Jerusalem
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Diplomatic Editor

There was outrage across the Arab world yesterday after the United States exercised its veto for the first time in five years to block a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's decision to confiscate Arab land in Jerusalem.

Governments, newspapers and diplomats said the move would damage the Middle East peace talks, reduce the authority of the US as a mediator and diminish the stature of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Moderate Palestinian negotiators urged Israel to open talks on the final status of Jerusalem. The future of the city is perhaps the single most sensitive issue in the Middle East. Negotiations over it are not due to start until next year.

Britain and its European partners supported the draft UN resolution, which called on Israel to give up a plan to expropriate 131 acres of land in east Jerusalem to build Jewish housing and a police station. Britain viewed the move as illegal and a breach of Israel's agreements with the Palestinians.

But the US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, said the veto was cast because her government believed Jerusalem should be settled only between Israel and the Arabs.

In European foreign ministries the veto was seen as proof that the Clinton administration had adopted an uncritical approach as the price for keeping the Israeli Labour party in power, preserving the peace talks and winning Jewish votes in the US elections. A European Commission official said the veto was outrageous and would damage prospects for a trade pact with Israel.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, said he was satisfied by the veto and the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, described the affair as "a lot of noise about a little story". Israel and the US may have calculated that the veto would help Mr Rabin fend off right-wing criticism without long-term damage to the Arab participants in the peace talks.

They appear to have reckoned without the emotion aroused in the Arab world by issues affecting Jerusalem's status. The city is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Captured in 1967, it is claimed by Israel as its indivisible capital but sought by Palestinians as the future capital of their own state. The veto fell on a date designated each year as Jerusalem Day by the Islamic Conference Organisation.

Mr Arafat's spokesman said "the United States has lost credibility and confidence in the eyes of the Palestinian people". The fundamentalist Hamas movement, opposed to the peace talks, said the US backed "a Zionist conspiracy to take over Jerusalem entirely". Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel last year, reversed its position and allowed opposition parties to stage an anti-Israel "popular congress".

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Moussa, said the veto was senseless, while Saudi Arabian newspapers urged Arabs and Muslims to "take up arms". Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the key US allies in the region.

Perhaps the most significant effect of the US veto will be felt in Damascus. It came just after the Foreign Minister, Farouq Al-Sharaa, had met President Bill Clinton and the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, for discussions on how to break the deadlock in talks between Israel and Syria.

The Syrian ruling-party newspaper said peace could never come "while American policy endorses the logic of Israel". That was seen as a sign that President Hafez al-Assad places little faith in American promises of good faith, so crucial to the tortuous negotiations over the Syrian Golan Heights. The Syrians insist on what they call "balanced and equal security measures" on the two sides of the 1967 Golan border.

But Israel says this is unacceptable, because reciprocal withdrawal of troops would thin out its defences deep into Galilee. Both sides privately accept the conflict can only be resolved by US-guaranteed security arrangements, perhaps involving deployment of American troops.

Even these proposals are arousing fury on the Israeli right. The opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, said this week that Mr Rabin was selling out Israeli interests and warned President Assad not to negotiate with "a government that does not have a mandate to give up the Golan or the Galilee" Such rhetoric, ahead of Israeli elections next year, explains the US desire to placate Mr Rabin and to keep Israel engaged in the peace talks.