Mideast leaders anxious

December 02, 2007|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Jeffrey Fleishman,Los Angeles Times

Cairo -- Last week's Middle East conference in Annapolis has highlighted Arab unease over the ability and will of a weak U.S. president to deliver peace. At the same time, it has stoked fears that Israel has scored a public relations coup while refusing to concede on such core issues as the fate of Jerusalem.

Arab officials are returning to their capitals with two tasks: persuading their populations that the summit was a crucial step toward a Palestinian state and keeping pressure on the U.S. and Israel to deliver on that goal.

Arabs were encouraged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at least temporarily, moved to center stage. But turmoil in Lebanon, war in Iraq and a rising Iran have complicated Middle East politics beyond the nuances of what unfolds between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Arab leaders worry that if Abbas is perceived to have gained little from Annapolis, it will strengthen Iranian-backed militant groups, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. One of the main reasons Sunni Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia agreed to participate in the summit was to counter Iran's political involvement across the region, including its alliance with Syria and influence in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and other nations suggest they will abandon the peace process started at Annapolis if the U.S. doesn't pressure Israel to make concessions that include allowing the return of Palestinian refugees, freezing Israeli settlements and resolving the future of Jerusalem. Damascus said the talks must be broadened to reach settlements on related matters such as the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

"Despite the centrality and importance of the Palestinian cause, focusing on part of the problem and disregarding the other elements of peace would be wrong. In fact, it could be disastrous for peace itself," wrote Issam Dari in Syria's Tishreen newspaper. "Peace that is not comprehensive and does not include all the other tracks will be a deal that may disappear and evaporate with the first breeze."

Jeffrey Fleishman writes for the Los Angeles Times

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