Disunited Arab chiefs cling to 'land for peace'

Cairo summit: Leaders fear Oslo accord is dissolving in face of Netanyahu's intransigence

No words, it seems, can sum up the hypocrisy that now surrounds the ashes of the Middle East "peace process".

There were the Arabs at their Cairo summit yesterday, solemnly pleading for a continuation of the American-brokered land-for-peace "process" and warning that they might have second thoughts if Israel did not honour its commitments. And there were the Israelis, whose new Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has already vetoed the agreed land-for-peace formula, claiming that the Arab summit's final communique represented a threat to peace.

"For the process to continue successfully and productively this threat [to Israeli security] must be removed," Mr Netanyahu said in a prepared speech. "This is the most elementary, fundamental requirement for talks about coexistence and peace." He went on to say that the peace process "cannot be made hostage to other prior conditions" - a reference to the Arab demands that the new government agree to trade more land for peace.

What the Cairo communique actually said was that the Arabs remained committed to the process of peace on which they had embarked at Madrid in 1991: total Israeli withdrawal for total peace based on UN Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425, along with an end to Jewish settlements on Arab land and a "just and comprehensive peace" that would give Palestinians a state and a capital in Jerusalem. The Arabs "would have to reconsider their steps towards Israel in the framework of the peace process" if there was any Israeli abandonment of commitments.

"What do you expect Arabs to do? What do you expect Palestinians to do?" an exasperated President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt said after the summit ended. "Much more violence? Much more terrorism?"

The truth, as many Arab journalists were quick to point out, is that the Arab nations (all, apparently, bar Jordan) believe that the five years of negotiations with Israel and the Oslo agreement are dissolving in the heat generated by Mr Netanyahu's three "Nos" - no to a withdrawal from Golan, no to a Palestinian state and no to a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. We still want peace, the Arabs were saying yesterday, but do not blame us when the pot boils over.

They will be blamed, but that is another story. What mattered yesterday was the text of their final communique and the long, sometimes furious arguments which produced it. None of them objected to the prelude, which called upon the rest of the world to ensure Israel kept to its side of the bargain; there was much talk of commitments, agreements, vows and "international legality" - the latter to prevent the construction of yet more Jewish settlements on Arab land. Then came the paragraphs which proved how disunited the Arabs still are.

King Hussein of Jordan had given an address of such fury that other delegates dubbed it "Netanyahu's speech"; he attacked "terrorism" in all its forms, adding - in a clear attack on Syria - that "we must confront the problem of cross-border terrorism, through condemnation, pursuit, and through the liquidation of pockets of terrorism, wherever their dens may be ... and whoever may be their organisers or victims". Jordan says Syria tried to send saboteurs across the Jordanian-Syrian border and sympathises with Turkey's complaints of Syrian support for Kurdish guerrillas. But the King's words also appeared to condone Israel's April assault on Hizbollah guerrillas which led to the massacre at Qana.

The Syrians were incensed, and their Foreign Minister, Farouk al-Sharah, bitterly condemned the King's speech in a private talk later with his Jordanian opposite number.

But when the King and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria later met alone Mr Assad apparently persuaded King Hussein that it was more important to present a united front to Israel's new government than give Israel ammunition to attack an Arab neighbour. This led to the communique's statement that "while the Arab leaders condemn attempts to label legitimate national resisters terrorists, they condemn all kinds of terrorist and destructive acts ... and express support ... for efforts to hold an international conference on terrorism".

Attempts by King Hussein to rouse the Gulf Arabs against Iran - and thus indirectly against Iran's Syrian ally - were softened to say that "Iran should respect the sovereignty of Bahrain and stop any destructive acts aimed at Bahrain" and should end its occupation of three Emirates islands. Syria, which wanted a condemnation of Turkey, not only for its military agreement with Israel but for its tampering with the waters of the Euphrates, had to be satisfied with "concern" about the Turkish-Israeli pact and a hopeless request to Turkey to "reconsider" its new agreement "so as not to affect the security of Arab states".

Having largely got what he wanted in the communique, President Assad chose not to say a word at the summit. But President Mubarak expressed his delight at what he considered a Jordanian-Syrian rapprochement and an invitation to the PLO's Yasser Arafat by Mr Assad to visit Damascus, a meeting of advantage to both sides.

Saddam Hussein got short shrift. The Saudis included their wish for the future unity of Iraq - they do not want a new Shia state on their northern frontier - and the Kuwaitis won a demand for full Iraqi compliance with the UN and the return of all Kuwaiti prisoners from Iraq.

But it was Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who made the most pertinent if ironic remark about Mr Netanyahu at the summit's end. "We should thank him for bringing us together," he said. "Without him, there could have been no such summit."

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