Arab countries are no longer interested in issuing a strong condemnation of Israeli aggression, writes Dina Ezzat
The debate over whether to hold an Arab summit, which was proposed this week by Yemen, is far from being resolved. The Yemeni proposal was discussed Tuesday at an Arab League meeting at the level of permanent representatives. Only nine Arab countries (Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, Djibouti, Kuwait and Mauritania) gave their initial approval to the proposal. A two-thirds quorum of the 22 Arab states is required to secure the possible convocation of an extraordinary Arab summit.
It was during the Arab foreign ministers' meeting at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League on Saturday that Yemen decided to propose the convocation of an extraordinary Arab summit to allow for serious decision-making on collective Arab reaction to the Israeli aggression on Gaza and Lebanon.
However, for many Cairo-based Arab diplomats, including those whose countries had given an initial nod of approval to the proposal, there is not much point in holding an Arab summit now. There is wide enough recognition within Arab diplomatic quarters that there is nothing that the summit could present in view of the many disagreements over the real causes and possible consequences of the current situation. Many diplomats speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on the fringe of and after the ministerial meeting argued that the level of disagreement demonstrated among foreign ministers was already too high.
According to informed sources, neither Syria nor Saudi Arabia seem to be particularly interested in the convocation of the Arab summit at the moment. Syria would not want an Arab summit that does not declare full support for Hizbullah and reaffirms the right of resistance -- an untenable objective at the moment.
For its part, Saudi Arabia does not want to be forced to speak against the role and performance of Hizbullah, which it has been doing for a week, at the level of its monarch.
As for Egypt, according to press statements published yesterday, President Hosni Mubarak said he believed it more pragmatic and effective to hold a limited summit for the countries directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Informed sources say the holding of even the foreign ministers meeting was actually a difficult task for the Arab League secretary-general to put together. "Many ministers were not interested in the meeting and thought that telephone conversations or bilateral meetings were enough. At the end they had to come because the secretary-general pressed hard," said one source.
Before delegating their ministers to the meeting on Saturday, some Arab capitals sought to establish a ceiling as to what they could pledge. The new arising Sunni triangle of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia issued statements, some of which were attributed to anonymous sources, suggesting that the blame for the current state of war lays squarely with both Hamas and Hizbullah who have provoked Israel by kidnapping three Israeli soldiers. Some Arab capitals suggest that these operations were conducted to serve the interests of Iran, which aims to distract world attention from its nuclear file for a while, and not the interests of legitimate Arab causes.
Such stances were readily rebuffed by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nassrallah. And once in the foreign ministers meeting, they were also rejected by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moalim who suggested that such stances could only play into the hands of the Israeli killing machine.
Sources close to the meeting say Al-Moalim entered into a verbal encounter with his Saudi counterpart Saud Al-Faisal and Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Sabah. "It was a short encounter that was contained but it indicated the big gap in stances," commented one source. He added that there was no reason to suggest that this gap would be breached if an Arab summit convenes. "Rather the opposite. The confrontation could be much worse if it is among leaders," he suggested.
Most sources agree that the Arab foreign ministers meeting witnessed the division of Arab countries into three camps: Egypt-Jordan-Saudi Arabia, which has the support of Morocco, Kuwait and Bahrain; a camp comprising Syria and Lebanon (reunited after a period of bitter disagreements) which has the lukewarm support of Algeria, Sudan, Yemen and Qatar. The third camp is made up of Arab countries apparently indifferent.
The issues of disagreement were not related to how far should the Arabs go in condemning Israel because there is a clear-cut limit in this respect. What Arab foreign ministers were in disagreement over was how far should they go in criticising Hizbullah and Hamas for what many insisted on calling "miscalculated moves" and how much should they blame Iran for instigating such moves on the part of Hamas and Hizbullah.
"They did not discuss the issue of Iran very openly in the meeting but it was subject to discussion in the bilateral meetings held on the fringe of the ministerial convocation," said one source. He added that the discussion on Hamas and Hizbullah demonstrated some concern regarding the public's reaction in view of the frustration caused by the Saudi-Jordanian-Egyptian blaming, even if implicit, of Hamas and Hizbullah.
As Israel continued its attacks on civilian targets in Gaza and Lebanon, international humanitarian bodies, including the International Committee for the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, reported wide-scale damage caused on the ground by the air strikes.
As the death and destruction continued, Arab foreign ministers debated what could be done, not necessarily securing a ceasefire and an exchange of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in return for the three Israeli soldiers, but rather over how to get Hamas and Hizbullah to show less resilience.
At the end of a five-hour meeting, they chose to deplore in not so angry a tone "the Israeli aggressions that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity". In another message to public opinion, they also expressed "deep regret for the veto used by the US in the UN Security Council against a resolution condemning the Israeli aggression." The Arab foreign ministers expressed "total solidarity with Lebanon and its steadfastness in the face of the brutal aggression... and held Israel responsible for compensation after the devastation that resulted from its aggression."
This said, the ministers agreed in a resolution that was presented by the Lebanese delegation, with the alleged consent of Hizbullah, to support the right of the Lebanese state to impose its control over all its territories. This, sources say, is an indirect reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1559 that the US and Israel have been insisting must be implemented as a pre-condition to reaching a ceasefire. The resolution calls for the deployment of the Lebanese army in the otherwise Hizbullah-controlled south of Lebanon.
"It seems that Hizbullah is willing now to accept the presence of the Lebanese army in the south but that does not mean Hizbullah is willing to withdraw its troops," commented one source.
However, as sources indicate, these matters were not subject to an easy agreement. Arab diplomats were making no secret of the fact that a good deal of the disagreement resulted from what they openly called "US pressure exercised on some Arab capitals."
Moreover, Arab foreign ministers agreed that the time had come to pursue a new role by the UN Security Council in handling the Middle East conflict. "The peace process is dead and we now have to go to the UN Security Council, in its capacity as the main body in charge of international peace and stability, to consider a new approach," Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said in a press conference following the ministerial meeting.
Moussa, who according to sources, had pressed upon the foreign ministers to agree on a plan of action to counter the Israeli aggression, stressed in the press conference that it would be sooner rather than later that the Arabs would request the convocation of the UN Security Council at the level of foreign ministers to contemplate a way out of Middle Eastern havoc which he blamed on the US for the immunity it grants to all acts of aggression and violation of international law committed by Israel.
Sources say that even on this matter agreement was not easy. One source said that some delegations were strictly opposed to "an announcement of the death of the peace process because they are worried about the US reaction to this line".
To indicate the level of disagreement, sources say, the meeting, which had originally planned to adopt one resolution on the overall situation, ended up by adopting three different resolutions: one related to the Israeli aggression on Palestine, which was presented by the Palestinian delegation; another related to the aggression on Lebanon, presented by the Lebanese delegation; and a third jointly prepared by Egypt and the secretariat of the Arab League to deal with the overall situation in the Middle East, including subtle recognition of the right of resistance balanced by an indirect appeal for Hamas and Hizbullah to avoid further escalation.
Disagreement persisted after the meeting. Upon returning to their capitals some foreign ministers offered national readings of the resolutions. In a press conference held in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Al-Faisal insisted that the resolutions of the ministerial meeting were inspired by Saudi logic. And during a joint press conference with his American counterpart, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul- Gheit seemed to overlook the collective Arab decision to consider the peace process dead even though he insisted on the need for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as a pre-requisite for the return to negotiations.
"It is very hard to see how the gaps could be filled and what would come out of the proposed Arab summit," commented an Arab diplomat. He added, "I think that several Arab capitals have decided to allow the confrontation to continue for a while in order to drain the energy of the conflicting sides before middle-of-the- road resolutions are offered."
And while some Arab capitals are trying to seize the moment to undermine Hamas and Hizbullah and to even pressure Syria into showing less support to these groups, other Arab capitals are hoping for an escalation that could force the entire Arab world and the international community to acknowledge the consequences of Israeli aggression on Western interests in the Arab world, including the stability of the regimes of some of their best allies.