Symbol of a peace in danger of collapse

Is today's Mideast summit in Egypt a crusade against terrorism or elaborate window-dressing, asks Robert Fisk

Tehran - Today's "summit of the peace-makers" in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh is supposed to show us that the nations of the world are united in opposing "terrorism", and still stand four- square behind the Middle East peace process. It is also intended to assist the re-election of two leaders - those of Israel and the United States. Which is the more important priority?

The US President Bill Clinton, President Boris Yeltsin of Russia, John Major, President Jacques Chirac of France, Helmut Kohl of Germany, the Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the PLO leader Yasser Arafat, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and probably King Hussein of Jordan will end the day shaking hands, publicly renewing their faith in a peace so deeply flawed that, even without the slaughter in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv which brought them together, was in danger of collapse.

For the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, far from being a new milestone on the road to an inevitable peace, is the most potent symbol to date of the imminent catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm the men who signed up for the American-Israeli peace. When even the participants cannot decide if the meeting should call for a crusade against "world terrorism" or demand further concessions from Arabs and Israelis, can the "peace process" be saved?

The 1991 Madrid summit promised the Arabs a peace based on UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 which call for total Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory in return for security for all states in the area. But the secret Oslo talks between the PLO and Israel allowed the promise of a settlement based on UN demands to be watered down to a peace in which 120,000 Israeli settlers remained on Arab land, in which Jewish settlements continued to be built on Arab property outside east Jerusalem, in which Mr Arafat received neither the promise of statehood nor a capital in east Jerusalem, and in which the 3.5 million Palestinian diaspora was abandoned.

Secret talks on the status of Jerusalem were half-heartedly under way when the first of the suicide bombers blew himself up last month. But Israeli troops were still billeted across the West Bank and inside the Gaza Strip, were still able to seal off "liberated" Palestinian towns from each other - as they have now done - and still controlled the frontiers of what Mr Arafat calls Palestine.

The Syrians, who will not attend today's summit, are asking for a repeat of the Madrid conference. They, of course, stand to benefit at once from such a project since they demand, in line with UN resolutions, the return of all occupied Golan for "total peace" with Israel. And however prejudiced the compassion of world leaders - they have not rushed to summits after Arab deaths - some of the Sharm el-Sheikh "peace-makers" understand that the unfairness of the Oslo agreement needs to be rectified if there is to be any chance of recovery.

Hamas was able to find the men to strike at Israel not because it was inspired by Iran but because it could point to the flaws in the Oslo accord and present them as proof of a betrayal of all Palestinian rights. How happy Hamas must have been to hear Martin Indyck, the US ambassador to Israel and a former supporter of Israel's cause in America, announcing in Jerusalem that "what we [sic] want from Arafat is more stick and less carrot". To crush Hamas politically Mr Arafat's authority needs to be shored up. That authority will continue to dribble away as long as tens of thousands of armed Israeli settlers live, against all international law, on Arab land, and as long as Israelis insist that Jerusalem must be "the eternal and unified capital" of only Israel.

But this summit, of course, is less about Mr Arafat's authority than Mr Peres's re-election. It was Israel that suffered the Hamas massacres, not Mr Arafat. Without Mr Peres's re-election, there will be no more peace - or so goes the common wisdom. And if Mr Peres is to be re-elected, there can be no immediate concessions to Mr Arafat; thus the PLO-Israeli peace must suffer in order to win an election that will guarantee the peace.

But the summit, under American-Israeli pressure, may demand support for Israel's crusade against "international terrorism" or - more specifically - "Islamic terrorism", since the variety of "terrorism" represented by Mr Rabin's assassin and by the Israeli settler who massacred Palestinians in Hebron is not quite what Messrs Clinton and Peres have in mind. Threats may be made against Iran, which the Europeans refuse to isolate, and against Libya, which has as much influence over events in "Palestine" as over Peru.

All this would ignore a few facts which are well known to the Europeans, the Russians and those Arab Gulf states which will also be represented at the Egyptian summit: that Hamas, barring its most radical members, privately accepts the partition of Palestine and Israel's existence. It is the Oslo accord itself that fuels the resentment among men who were so accommodating in the early days of the movement that Israeli officials, including Mr Peres, personally met them.

Even in Tehran, where the anti-Zionist rhetoric is both loudest and emptiest, President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said this week that Iran does not regard the "peace process" as its business, referring to Palestine as "another country's affairs".

European diplomats in Tehran, aware of Iran's financial support for dissident Palestinian movements, have found not a scrap of evidence linking Iran to the recent bombings. Attempting to overthrow the regime in Iran - whose radicals have been largely excluded from political power and whose more moderate Islamists increased their support in last week's parliamentary elections - would be a very bloody affair.

Yet time is running out for the "peace-makers"; the results of their failure would be explosive. Mr Arafat is a marked man; his decision to allow joint searches with Israeli troops for Hamas members has proved to the satisfaction of his detractors that the "puppet" label is true. President Mubarak and King Hussein, who have cajoled and often intimidated their populations into accepting the American-Israeli peace process, will be fatally undermined. The Europeans, despite the need for US support in Bosnia, will have to seek new relationships with potentially radicalised Arab states who areEurope's neighbours. Israel will despair.

In the United States, too, there may be a detonation. Not only will Mr Clinton's re-election be called into doubt. But a deep concern that can be heard privately among American foreign service officers may also come to the surface - that America's tiny but influential Jewish community has been playing too powerful a pro-Israeli role in the formulation of US Middle East policy. How, Americans may begin to ask, did the US come to lock itself so tightly to Israel, to align its policy so closely to Israel that the two are almost indistinguishable? The anti-semitism of Pat Buchanan typifies a dangerous mood among Americans; not least, as some Israelis themselves admit, because Mr Buchanan's unpleasant and exaggerated taunt that Congress is "an Israeli-occupied area" contains a powerful resonance.

So today's summit is going to move across very fragile ground. Since a real rejuvenation of the "peace process" is electorally impossible for Mr Peres, most Arabs - and Europeans - would prefer window dressing: an image of resolution propped up by photo-opportunities and honeyed words of world unity. A crusade against "terrorism", however, could have very different results. Fighting for peace is one thing; going to war for peace is quite another.

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