|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
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Rolling the diceAs frustration with Israeli aggression continues, Cairo turned to the Europeans while the US tried to polish up its peacemaking act. Nevine Khalil and Soha Abdelaty report
Although Israeli forces this week began redeployment from Palestinian territories which they had reoccupied over the past month, that in itself is considered a drop in the sea of Arab demands to restore sanity and security to the region.
President Mubarak during talks with Jordan's King Abdullah on the latest developments
photo: Mustafa Attia
The schedule for troop withdrawal was entirely on Israel's terms. Even US Secretary of State Colin Powell could not convince them to be more reasonable. Israel's proposal does not even address the siege of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and his aides, or the stand-off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
So while the US continues to grapple with the failure of its top diplomat's emergency mission to the region last week, and Israeli Prime Minister Sharon continues to wreak havoc in the Palestinian territories, the Arabs have intensified their efforts with the Europeans. Arab governments are trying to rally European support for stopping Sharon in his tracks.
A handful of Arab foreign ministers took their quarrel to Valencia, Spain, at a Euro-Mediterranean meeting on Monday.
The Euro-Med meetings are a spin-off from the 1995 Barcelona Process, which is meant to enhance cooperation between the 15 European Union countries and 12 southern Mediterranean countries. These include eight Arab nations and Israel. The group meet regularly to discuss cooperation in the fields of trade, security and social and cultural issues.
Syria and Lebanon, however, decided to boycott this week's meetings in response to Israeli aggression. But Egypt and a further five Arab countries felt it was important to attend the meeting.
The six Arab ministers in attendance urged the Europeans to take a firmer stand against Israel. They want the Europeans to pressure Israel to withdraw fully from Palestinian-controlled areas, to guarantee Palestinian President Arafat's safety and to launch political negotiations.
"Europe has a good position," said Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher ahead of the meeting. "We want it to be stronger and firmer."
While saying he understood Syria and Lebanon's decision, Maher still said, "Boycotting Valencia means boycotting Europe. We want Europe to continue with its position which is based on jurisdiction and international law." It was also an opportunity to "confront" Israel with the violations it has committed against the Palestinian people, Maher added.
But attending in order not to estrange the Europeans did not mean that the Arabs were willing to make or receive "friendly" overtures when it came to the Israelis. Before heading to Valencia, Maher said he was not interested in meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, although he would accept an invitation from his Israeli counterpart.
"Frankly, I don't want to meet him [Peres], but if he asked to see me, I would accept," Maher told reporters. "In any case, I do not think he would be happy with what I would tell him."
In another snub, Arab foreign ministers on Monday walked out of the meeting when it was Israel's turn to give a statement.
"We do not expect to hear anything new from Israel. We do not care to listen to what [Peres] has to say, just as the Israelis have said President Arafat [is irrelevant]," Maher said on Monday.
Maher earlier said: "Every inch [of Palestinian territory] which the Israeli forces continue [to occupy] in violation of all international agreements and jurisdiction, will not be accepted."
The Arabs presented a united face by consulting each other at the highest levels. Several Arab leaders spoke by telephone and in person, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.
On Sunday, Mubarak and Abdullah, whose countries are the only Arab states which have signed peace agreements with Israel, consulted on how to end Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian territories. The two leaders want a clear and strong international stand against Israel's aggressions and hard-line policies. They expressed their concern over the continued siege imposed on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the wanton destruction that Israeli troops have caused in the Palestinian territories. They also reviewed the results of Powell's recent tour of the region.
A statement released by the Jordanian Royal Palace after the talks stressed that the international community, led by the US, should "shoulder the responsibility for Israel's aggressions and actions against the Palestinian people." This should be done through creating "appropriate mechanisms which provide protection for the Palestinians and pave the way for relaunching peace negotiations." Solutions should be based on UN decisions, "and not through security measures," the statement added.
In a concerted effort to streamline Arab efforts, Abdullah left Cairo for Casablanca where he met Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, and then traveled to London to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mubarak, too, consulted Crown Prince Abdullah by telephone on Monday, hours before the Saudi official headed to Washington for meetings. Upon the prince's return, a decision will be taken about the possibility of holding an emergency meeting for Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) foreign ministers.
This was the main item on Qatari Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al-Thani's agenda when he toured a number of Arab states this week. The Qatari minister, whose country currently chairs the OIC, was in Cairo to gauge views on the possibility of holding such a meeting. Arafat had called for an emergency OIC summit in light of the current crisis.
"The situation is very dangerous and very serious, requiring a firm Arab and Muslim stand," Al-Thani told reporters after the meeting, adding that most Arab countries were willing to hold an emergency meeting. He added that despite the "huge effort" on the part of the Europeans, the UN and the American and European public in support of the Palestinians, "more is needed for the international community to [stop] the carnage in the Palestinian territories."
Powell ended his visit last week by returning to Cairo -- without having secured a cease-fire in the 19-month Intifada or obtaining a complete pullout from the West Bank, which Israel invaded on 29 March. But Mubarak cancelled a previously scheduled meeting with Powell hours before he arrived in Cairo. To many observers, this was a signal of Egypt's displeasure at Washington's failure to convince Israel to withdraw from Palestinian- controlled areas and lift the siege on Arafat.
Nonetheless, Powell denied on Sunday that he had been snubbed by Mubarak, but rather that Mubarak was "ill" and therefore could not meet him. "I wasn't expecting to see him [Mubarak]," Powell told Fox News Sunday. Powell had instead briefed his Egyptian counterpart Ahmed Maher on 17 April.
Maher told reporters that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "time-line" for withdrawal "does not please us." Cairo's discontent with the US stand continued this week, as the US threatened to veto a heavily-worded UN Security Council resolution to send an investigating team to the Jenin refugee camp.
"The American position and statements are very confusing," said Maher, adding that the US should "reveal its displeasure" with Israel's intransigence. The US position is "fluctuating, at a time when the situation cannot take any fluctuations in positions," Maher noted. Egypt was also upset with US President George W Bush's call on Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to condemn all forms of terrorism, and to "say clearly that a murderer is not a martyr; he or she is just a murderer." In response, Maher said: "I cannot imagine that anyone would ask for a condemnation of resistance against occupation. Resistance is the other face of occupation."
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