Race is on to stop a crisis becoming a catastrophe

Patrick Cockburn on the chances of success at tomorrow's Mid-East summit

Jerusalem - "In the moment that remains to us between crisis and catastrophe we may as well have a glass of champagne," a French diplomat said at a conference in the 1930s, deflating expectations that a meeting of international leaders could do much to avert the Second World War.

As at least 22 world leaders, led by President Bill Clinton, gather at the Movenpick Hotel in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh tomorrow, they are likely to be less frank about their limited ability to prevent the crisis in relations between Israel and the Palestinians turning into a catastrophe.

But they know it would not take much to make the peace accords of the last three years unravel. More suicide attacks in Israel would probably force Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, to send tanks into Gaza and the West Bank cities: public opinion would leave him with little choice.

Palestinians would certainly fight back. There are 30,000 armed troops - called "police" in the treaty - in the autonomous areas who would resist. The expectations of 2.3 million Palestinians in the occupied territories have also been raised by Oslo. They would not accept reoccupation peacefully.

Mr Peres can see this well. Last week, he said Israel was only "a quarter of an hour away from achieving peace". But too many Israelis think the clock is stuck and going backwards if peace means more, not less, dead bodies.

The Sharm el Sheikh conference, chaired by Mr Clinton and President Mubarak of Egypt, and attended by the main European leaders including President Boris Yeltsin, President Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and John Major, is primarily designed to help Mr Peres and Yasser Arafat, the new Palestinian President.

Mr Peres, who faces the electorate on 29 May, is fighting for his political life. Not surprisingly, he has given the conference an ecstatic welcome. A Labour minister said cynically that "one photograph of the anti-terror conference equals a thousand election ads".

Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud bloc, hoping to oust Mr Peres and Labour, suspect Sharm el Sheikh might give him a political kiss of life. "If the conference embraces Arafat instead of cracking down on him, this would be a whitewash," a Likud statement said. "The conference will not solve the problem. The heads of state will come and go and we will be stuck with the terror."

For Mr Arafat, Sharm el Sheikh has advantages. Palestinians may not have their own country but the world will do a lot to preserve their autonomous areas. The meeting will bring Mr Arafat closer to the US, always one of his goals. It will give him a forum in which to cultivate other Arab leaders, many still cool since he backed Iraq in the Gulf war. But the conference also has dangers for the Palestinian leader. It may push him further than he wants to go. He knows he must not appear a US or Israeli puppet.

Israel wants the conference to be about terror directed against itself. Mr Peres says he wants it to take three practical measures: an attack on Hamas finances, exchange of information about Islamic militants between states, and tougher border controls. None is likely to be productive: Middle East governments rely on their secret police and do not share information readily except with close allies and often not then.

The conference might damage Hamas by cutting its links with conservative countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Despite its offices in Iran and Syria, Hamas was created in 1988 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza, which was heavily supported by the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan and the Saudi royal family. In its first year, Hamas was even smiled on by the Israeli authorities, who thought it would siphon off support from the PLO.

Another problem is that the US wants the conference to be directed against Iran. This requires some rewriting of recent history. Islamic Jihad, a smaller, less political organisation, was traditionally the chosen instrument of Iran.

Not much outside support would have been necessary to stage the recent attacks. Three of the latest bombings were carried out by recently recruited students using old Italian mines from Sinai. No skill, experience or equipment was necessary other than a willingness to die.

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