Palestinians fear summit of blame - not justice

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The Independent Online

Nine years ago, when the Arabs gathered in Madrid, they trusted George Bush's America. The Syrians were there, the Saudis, the Palestinians. US officials had even tastefully removed from the conference hall the statue of a Christian king standing on the corpse of a Muslim tyrant.

Nine years ago, when the Arabs gathered in Madrid, they trusted George Bush's America. The Syrians were there, the Saudis, the Palestinians. US officials had even tastefully removed from the conference hall the statue of a Christian king standing on the corpse of a Muslim tyrant.

Everyone had been told there would be a Middle East peace based on UN Security Council Resolution 242. Iraq had just been evicted from Kuwait.

But yesterday the same Arab nations - and even the Palestinians - regarded the emergency summit at Sharm el-Sheikh as worthless. Syria said it was useless for the Palestinians, dangerous for the Middle East and it would not even profit the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak.

For once, Mr Barak might have agreed with Damascus. Yasser Arafat had wanted an Arab summit to blame Israel for the deaths of almost 100 Palestinians in more than two weeks, not a ceasefire summit called by Egypt.

In the streets of Arab capitals, that most dangerous of all phenomena, public opinion, was making itself felt. Half a million people on the roads of Rabat, repeated marches on the Israeli embassy in Amman that have already left one demonstrator dead and scores of policemen injured while in Egypt, Mr Mubarak's riot squads are keeping the students from the US and Israeli embassies; no Arab dictator needs this.

In Algiers, the authorities cancelled a protest march. In Saudi Arabia, they collected $40m for the Palestinians, in answer to an appeal by King Fahd.

But save for Oman, which has cut commercial links with Israel, the kings and potentates of the region can do little more than argue, through their controlled newspapers, that the Arabs were tricked. Even Mr Arafat thinks that now.

How cynically he must have regarded President Clinton's call yesterday to Palestine and Israel to "move beyond blaming each other". Was this not the very same Mr Clinton who just two months ago was blaming Mr Arafat on Israeli television for the failure of the Camp David summit?

This was Washington up to its old tricks again, whipping the Arabs as the guilty party for not making "concessions" to Israel one day, calling upon them - in the role of neutral honest broker - to end violence the next. Nor have the Arabs forgotten how, when the first Palestinians were shot by the Israelis, Mr Clinton said he hoped this might act as "a spur" to peace.

A Lebanese journalist lamented: "He thought we would be cowed into submission by Israeli firepower. But I think those days are over." The Arab press has poured scorn on Israel's summit demand that Mr Arafat reimprison Hamas militants set free last week. Was it not Israel that encouraged Hamas in the Eighties as a rival to Arafat's PLO? Did senior Israeli army officers not meet Hamas regularly when the organisation seemed hostile to Mr Arafat? And what of Sheikh Yassin, the hoary old prelate who now demands Mr Arafat leave Sharm el-Sheikh and calls for the destruction of Israel? Was it not former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who let Sheikh Yassin out of jail - as part of a deal to free two Mossad assassins who had tried to murder a Hamas operative in Amman? Alas, memories are short. All Mr Clinton will talk about is "peace", as if it's for sale on a supermarket shelf. The peace the Arabs want - with Resolution 242 and its UN demand that Israel leave the occupied territories in return for the security of all states in the area - is not being discussed at Sharm el-Sheikh. It's not about justice or resolution. It's about who fired the last shot.

But more importantly, as the Arabs know, it's about oil. An 11 per cent increase in 24 hours took the price over $35 a barrel. It could easily go to $40. Or $45. Which is why most Arabs believe the Americans and the EU turned up in strength to the Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

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