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Arabs dream up their own 'peace' agenda

First, the dream. If you believe what Amr Moussa told us yesterday, the "peace process" is still a rosy option for the Arab world. The foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, he said, was smooth, positive, a joint effort for "a just and lasting peace". There was no end to the amount of obligations, rights and legitimacy that would be invoked, no limit to the promises that today's summit would go to to avoid "a message of threats and warnings".

Only when the Egyptian Foreign Minister - Cairo's top spin-doctor - insisted that he alone would brief journalists after each session of the Arab potentates did it become clear that Egypt intended to keep the lid on suspicion and mutual animosity. On the 25th floor of the Egyptian foreign ministry yesterday, you might almost have believed Shimon Peres was still prime minister of Israel.

Now, the reality. A five-page draft communique for the Arab summit - which Mr Moussa would not reveal to us yesterday - calls for a "just and lasting peace" in the Middle East based on land for peace, the very formula Mr Netanyahu has already rejected. Delegates will be asked to condemn "terrorism" but to differentiate this from "legitimate resistance" (i.e. Hizbollah's war against Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon). There will be no condemnation of Iran but there will be support for Bahrain against any "foreign interference" - unspecified - in its internal affairs.

Iran will be asked only to abide by the decision of international mediation in its territorial dispute with the Emirates. Arab leaders will express "deep concern" about Turkey's new relationship with Israel. And, almost at the end of the unpublished communique - again unrevealed by Mr Moussa - comes the assertion that Mr Netanyahu's post-election policy platform is "very upsetting and very threatening to the peace process".

Both Mr Moussa's platitudes and the actual communique reflect the dangerous world in which the Arabs - as well as the Israelis - now find themselves in the aftermath of the Netanyahu victory. As the nation which wishes to remain the United States' best Arab friend - and wishes to continue to receive Washington's annual $2.1bn (pounds 1.3bn) of aid - Egypt has to put a brave face on the death of the "peace process". Any hostile words about Israel, and the US Senator Alfonse D'Amato and his friends might pull the plug on the cash flow. The Arabs don't want to be blamed for the collapse of the American-Israeli "peace".

The communique embodies equally deceptive words. The "just and lasting peace" must continue to be based on UN resolutions 242, 338 and 425, which were the basis of the US- organised 1991 Madrid peace conference and which call for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land in return for peace. This was the American deal, and it is this which the new Israeli government now intends to set aside. Syria wished to call for a halt to "normalisation" between Arab states, and it was King Hussein - America's new favourite Arab leader, who is normalising all Jordan's relations with Israel - who threatened to denounce "terrorism" in general and, reportedly, the Syrian- sponsored variety. Thus the call for no further normalisation was dropped in return for the distinction between the murder of civilians and attacks on occupation troops by Syria's Hizbollah allies. Syria's Iranian ally was protected from condemnation by Bahrain but the Emirates were supported in their dispute with Iran over offshore islands by the call for international arbitration.

The "deep concern" over Turkey's new military alliance with Israel was generally accepted because - although Syria is threatened by Israeli F-16s flying in Turkish airspace - all the Arab Mediterranean nations, including Egypt, have been angered by the pact. "We wish to have the best of relations with a sisterly country like Turkey," Mr Moussa said yesterday, without mentioning the distinctly critical clause in the communique. But at the very end of his press conference in the morning, the Egyptian Foreign Minister did level with us.

There were undertakings and principles and signed documents between the Arabs and Israelis which must be respected, he said. The enlargement of settlements on occupied Palestinian land would be "not only an obstacle to peace but also an illegal act". As for the future of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, Jewish settlements and Israeli withdrawal from Arab land, these were the most important issues for Arabs. They are also the very issues Mr Netanyahu has said he will not discuss in his "no-precondition" talks with Arab leaders. And still Amr Moussa believes the "peace process" is alive.