Mideast conflict damaging U.S. ties with Arab states

Escalation threatens effort to oust Hussein

April 02, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is damaging the fragile relations that the United States and Israel have developed with moderate Arab states, eroding the progress made in the decade since the Persian Gulf war.

It has also made it harder for the Bush administration to isolate Iraq and gain Arab support for its drive to topple the government of President Saddam Hussein.

Leaders in Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have made peace with Israel, face growing anti-Israel sentiment that is increasingly directed against the United States as well. Both governments are under enormous pressure from their citizens to turn away from Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have begun to ease their hostile relationship with Baghdad.

The change in Iraq's relations with its neighbors could signal a much broader shift in the Arab world against U.S. policies.

"This shows that major strategic realignments are not impossible," Chas W. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said of the sudden change in Iraq's relations with its neighbors in the Persian Gulf.

While fast-moving events make predictions impossible, he said, "you could see a massive downgrading of U.S. relations on every level" with America's longtime allies in the Arab world.

The growing strains between the United States and moderate Arab nations could undermine cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and makes it harder for the United States to assert leadership in trying to quell Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Barely more than a week ago, signs seemed to point in the opposite direction, with momentum building in Israel, Washington and the Arab world to end the crisis.

President Bush's envoy to the region, Anthony C. Zinni, was trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. Israel had halted a major offensive in the West Bank. Arab leaders were coalescing around a "vision" of peace with Israel offered by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. And Vice President Dick Cheney had shown in his trip through the region that the United States was listening to the concerns of Arab leaders.

All of that was changed last week by a Palestinian suicide bombing that claimed 22 Israeli lives on the first night of Passover, and then the move by Israel two days later against Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Amid indications that the Israeli offensive could last for weeks or months, Arafat has used interviews with the Arab news media to rally popular support in the Arab world, calling for "martyrs by the millions" to march on Jerusalem.

The response on the Arab "street" has been powerful, with tens of thousands demonstrating angrily in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. A widespread Arab view that the United States is supporting and abetting Israel's "war" has turned crowds against the United States. A KFC outlet in Cairo was burned. And 1,000 demonstrators protested outside the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

"The only available choice for the Arabs is to support the Palestinian resistance in the face of the Israeli invasion of towns, villages and camps," Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile, Egypt's state-run television vented unusually vitriolic criticism of Israel on Sunday, denouncing what it called "Zionist-Nazi" actions and likening the hard-line government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime.

Moderate Arab regimes "are all under tremendous pressure from their own people," said Muhammed Wahby, a former Egyptian diplomat who is now a Washington-based commentator. The plight of the Palestinians is a cause "that has been festering in the heart of every Arab for the last 50 years. If you touch this thing, you are touching something very explosive.

"Let Arab governments open the gates," Wahby said, "and you will see tens of thousands of suicide bombers - Arabs from everywhere, and most of all, Egypt."

He said relations between the United States and the Arab world are the worst that he has seen in decades. Arab news media reported that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II expressed their frustration to Bush in phone calls Saturday.

The explicit support that Bush gave Saturday to Israel's right to decide how to defend itself reinforced a view in the region that the United States has given its blessing to Sharon, who is reviled in the Arab world.

Bush repeated yesterday that terrorism must be brought under control before there can be hope of moving toward a regional peace.

"It's essential for the peace of the region and the world that we root out terrorist activities, that we condemn those activities," he said.

"Suicide bombers in the name of religion is simple terror," Bush said. "And the free world, the civilized world must band together to stop this kind of activity if we expect there to be peace and resolution in the Middle East."

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