Arabs try for unity at summit Leaders hope to put pressure on Israel

June 21, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO, Egypt -- Arab leaders assemble here tomorrow in an attempt to unite against what they see as backtracking on the peace process by the new Israeli government.

The first major Arab summit in six years will convene amid considerable resentment of the United States for its pro-Israel stand, resentment that may weaken the American alignments that have dominated the Middle East since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

"I don't think the Arabs can accept Israel reneging on the peace process, [or] being required to take steps forward while the other side is stepping back," said Amr Mousa, foreign minister of Egypt, a sponsor of the summit.

Israel has dismissed the summit as "threatening rhetoric," and the United States cautioned Arab leaders "not to close any doors," a caution that only further angered Arabs.

Twenty of the 22 Arab countries are expected to be in Cairo -- Iraq and Somalia were not invited. As many as 14 heads of state may attend. It will be the biggest such gathering since a summit held in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait. That summit became a disaster for Arab unity when the nations squared off into two camps.

The most ambitious proposals at this summit will call for the Arab countries to suspend negotiations with Israel, to resurrect the economic boycott and to recognize a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

It is unlikely that many of those proposals will win unanimity among Middle Eastern leaders still wary of offending Israel's chief backer, the United States. The more likely outcome is a strongly worded warning to Israel to continue the peace process.

But the summit does have considerable potential to alter the politics of the region and affect further progress toward peace between Israelis and Arabs.

It may well chill Israel's progress in thawing relations with the Arab world, a chief benefit to Israel of the 1993 accord with the Palestinians. It may abruptly halt Israel's newly won trade relations with "moderate" Arab states such as Oman, Morocco and Qatar.

"The Israelis made clear at their elections that they are not ready for peace with the Arabs," wrote commentator Ragheda Dergham in the London Arabic daily Al-Hayat. "So be it. And the Arabs acknowledge they cannot fight Israel. So be it. There should be a frozen peace -- no peace process, no dreams of coexistence, no normalization or a New Middle East."

The summit could produce pressure on Israel to comply with its agreements with the Palestinians or face a more unified reaction than the Arab states have managed before.

"I think there will be a strong message that the Palestinian track has to be followed, or the other nations will respond," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian negotiator.

The summit was called as a quick response to the May 29 election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has consistently criticized the peace accords with Palestinians and the negotiations with Syria and Lebanon.

It gained increased urgency when Netanyahu, on taking office Monday, issued government guidelines that appear to retreat from the promises of the previous Labor Party government.

Those guidelines, for example, call for an increase in Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and warn that Israeli soldiers may be sent back into areas already under Palestinian control, both of which undercut the Palestinian accord.

In addition, Netanyahu has ruled out negotiation over Jerusalem or agreement to a Palestinian state, which Israel had promised to discuss in the current, final round of negotiations. Netanyahu also vowed not to return the Golan Heights to Syria, the central issue of talks with Damascus.

"If these are the declared policies of the extremist leader Netanyahu, what is left of the peace process?" asked an editorial in Egypt's semiofficial newspaper Al-Ahram.

The goal of this summit, Arab unity, has long been a clarion call in the Middle East and has long been elusive. Syria would like to take a leadership role to forge a unified front against Israel.

But there are plenty of potholes on the road to unity. Jordan and Syria have been feuding, with Jordan accusing Syria of sending Palestinian "terrorists" across their border and Syria accusing Jordan of being Israel's surrogate.

King Hussein of Jordan has been the most optimistic of Arab leaders about Netanyahu's election.

Critics say he is pleased at any setback for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a long-time rival for control of the West Bank and Jerusalem's Islamic holy sites.

"There is no reason for pessimism," he said of Netanyahu's victory. "I am very optimistic, hopeful and determined that things will move ahead."

Syria is alarmed at Jordan's support of Israel and at Israel's recent military treaty with Turkey. Syria sees an axis of Jordan, Israel and Turkey winning American favor to counterbalance any united front among the other Arab states.

Egypt is vying with Syria to assume a leadership role, but has been cautious not to be too critical of Israel for fear of alienating the United States.

The summit will take place at a specially built round table with 20 seats at the International Conference Center in Cairo. After opening speeches, much of the deliberation will be in private, leading to a final communique Sunday.

Pub Date: 6/21/96

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