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28 March - 3 April 2002
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The ides of MarchThe Arab summit was supposed to have been about peace. No longer. Graham Usher reports from Jerusalem
"President Arafat has decided not to allow Israel to pressure the Palestinian negotiators into submitting to Israeli conditions and so he decided not to go to the [Arab] summit" in Beirut.
BORDER PATROL: An Israeli soldier motions Palestinians away from a checkpoint outside a refugee camp (photo: AP)
With such brusqueness did Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo draw the curtain on Tuesday on an absurd political theatre and expose the dangerous props that created it: Israeli rejectionism, US powerlessness and Arab helplessness to do anything about either.
"Arafat is under siege in Ramallah but the Arab leaders are under siege in Beirut -- under siege from their own public opinions," said one aide to the Palestinian leader. No wonder by Wednesday only 12 of the 22 Arab heads of state had dared to show in the Lebanese capital.
Ariel Sharon's final "conditions" for letting Yasser Arafat travel to and from the summit were aired on Tuesday. One was for the Palestinian leader to declare, "in Arabic," a ceasefire and an end to violence. The second was the absence of American assurances that should "terror attacks" occur while Arafat was in Beirut Israel would be free to bar his return. Without these it would be better he not go, Sharon told Israel's Arabic TV channel.
Washington responded with thunderous silence, even though Sharon's veto annulled promises the US reportedly made to Arab leaders vowing Arafat's attendance. One of these may have been President Mubarak, who, on Tuesday, cancelled his trip to Beirut for "domestic reasons."
It was not the only failure of US diplomacy. On Tuesday US special envoy Anthony Zinni presented his "bridging proposals" for a Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire.
The Palestinians rejected them. Tilted massively toward Israel, the proposals made no mention of an end to Israel's assassination policy or a timetable governing the lifting of the sieges on the West Bank and Gaza.
Above all there was no corridor between the security provisions laid down in the Tenet plan and the political track of resumed negotiations recommended by the Mitchell report. "We will never accept security measures without a political horizon," said Palestinian West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub on Tuesday.
Zinni remains in town but most Israeli and Palestinian observers believe his chances now of brokering a ceasefire are slim to zero. And Israel is increasingly clear what will come in the wake.
Leaked to the Israeli and American press -- and addressed at an enlarged meeting of the Israeli cabinet on Tuesday -- this is a "comprehensive military confrontation" with the Palestinians, involving "deeper," "longer" and more lethal incursions into Palestinian Authority controlled areas in the West Bank and Gaza.
Though none are uttering the words, this would probably mean the destruction of what is left of the PA and Israel's permanent re-conquest of vast tracks of the occupied territories.
Nor do the Palestinians have any faith the US would act as a brake. "Didn't Colin Powell give Sharon a green light of three days to invade Ramallah?" asks the aide.
Interned still in the West Bank, Arafat will address the summit by teleconference. He will endorse the Saudi initiative, says PA sources.
For the Palestinian leadership (though not for all of the Palestinian factions) the initiative replaces the vagaries of land for peace with the brutal clarities of Arab recognition of the Jewish state in return for Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 lines, restores the Palestinian issue to its Arab milieu, and sets a benchmark from which no Arab leader, Palestinian or other, can easily depart.
For all these reasons the initiative "amounts to a strategic Arab endorsement of the Palestinians' negotiating positions at the Camp David and Taba meetings," says Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib.
But with Arafat "present" in Beirut only by his kiffiyyah and a vacant chair the summit will be forced to focus less on the minutiae of what is meant by "normal relations." Instead the focus will be on what "effective mechanisms" will the Arabs put in place to face a US administration whose influence over Israel is minimal and an Israeli leader who told an Israeli newspaper on Tuesday that the one "mistake" of his premiership was his commitment "not to physically harm Yasser Arafat."
The months ahead will see Sharon strive to rectify the error. Will they see the Arabs rectify theirs?
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