A tiny glimmer of hope in the gloom that engulfs the Middle East

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Which will have the greater impact on the course of history? The emphatic personal statement made by the young suicide bomber who walked into the lobby of an Israeli seaside hotel and blew himself up on Wednesday night? Or the equivocal declaration issued by a bare quorum of Arab League leaders in Beirut yesterday?

In other circumstances and at other times, the Beirut declaration might have been hailed around the world as a breakthrough. Even eclipsed as it was by the "Passover massacre" in Netanya, the declaration was significant, not so much for what it says but for the fact that it was drafted at all. It marks a shift in the attitude of several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, that have previously used the Palestinian cause as a diplomatic lever and an instrument of domestic propaganda but that have not been much interested in helping to resolve the conflict.

Just as the unoriginal design of Crown Prince Abdullah's peace plan was less important than the fact that the future king of Saudi Arabia was proposing it, so the mere acceptance by Arab League nations of their role in underwriting a settlement is more important than the precise terms that were agreed yesterday. The text may have represented an advance in that Syrian insistence on a right to return to their homes of all Palestinians was fudged in the language of a "just solution" of the refugee problem – even if the demand that Israel withdraw to 1967 borders is obstinately unrealistic.

The force of the Beirut declaration was undermined by the roll-call of absentees, which included three of the leaders most directly concerned: Yasser Arafat, King Abdullah of Jordan and Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President. Yet its basic message, that the Arab nations offer to guarantee Israel's security in return for a withdrawal from Palestinian territory, does represent a glimmer of hope in the gathering gloom.

It is a flame that has little chance of staying alight in successive pressure waves from suicide bombings, however. The increasingly horrific killings of Israeli civilians by suicide terrorists over the past 18 months of the Palestinian uprising underline the greatest flaw in the Beirut document, which is that guarantees of Israeli security are not in the gift of Arab leaders. If Mr Arafat cannot control the suicide bombers of Hamas, the main militant Palestinian organisation, let alone those of his own Fatah faction, there is no chance that other Arab leaders can.

The truth is that Hamas is winning. Its aim is to push Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, to raise the military costs of commitment in the West Bank and Gaza. It hopes to repeat Hezbollah's success in driving Israel out of south Lebanon.

Yet it is better that the Arab League endorse this peace initiative than not. Hamas draws on support and resources from Arab countries, none of them democratic, and if the Beirut declaration means such support is less forthcoming, that is a step in the right direction. But the young man who walked into the lobby of the Park Hotel with explosives strapped around his body did not do so because Syrians or Saudi Arabians made him; we can only guess that he did so in the desperate belief that the indiscriminate killing of Israelis is the only hope of securing justice for his people.

Legitimate Palestinian grievances must be recognised, but so must the need for compromise. The tone of yesterday's declaration in Beirut matters. In essence, it endorses the spirit of compromise Bill Clinton urged at the end of his presidency. If it can push both sides a millimetre back towards the positions they held then, it will have been worthwhile. But the auguries are not good.