Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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No deal is a good deal

By Sherine Bahaa

When residents of Alexandria discovered last week that a heavily-protected motorcade driving through their city was for Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, they lined the streets, cheering the man who stood firm defending Jerusalem at the failed Camp David talks.

What happened in Egypt proved to be only a rehearsal for the hero's welcome Arafat received later that same day in Gaza. Although no deal came out of the two weeks of tough negotiations at Camp David, for many Palestinians, failure, in this case, was synonymous with victory.

Arafat refused to bow to US and Israeli pressures to compromise on Jerusalem, the core issue, which according to leaks by all three sides, led to the summit's failure.

While Arafat's reception in Gaza on 26 July was reminiscent of his first entry to the self-rule areas in 1994 -- and perhaps even more emotional -- only the coming weeks will show if this Palestinian "victory" at Camp David will have a positive impact on the outcome of the peace process or whether a new cycle of violence will erupt.

Which of the two outcomes occurs depends on the support Arafat garners during his Arab tour this week. Staying in Gaza only briefly, Arafat launched a tour that took him first to France and then to Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.

Egypt, for its part, stepped up its contacts with Arab leaders in an effort to secure maximum support for the Palestinians. Two days before the summit's failure, news came from Camp David to the effect that the Americans were seeking Arab help to put pressure on Arafat to accept a compromise on Jerusalem.

Arafat

Arafat was given a hero's welcome upon his return to Gaza from Camp David for refusing to compromise on Jerusalem (photo: AP)


Mubarak visited Saudi Arabia on 23 July to consult with King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah. The two countries confirmed their backing for Arafat and that they would not accept anything less than Israel's withdrawal from occupied East Jerusalem. After the talks collapsed, Mubarak paid a quick visit to Libya on Sunday, meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah the following day.

"The main objective of all these contacts and consultations is to create a united Arab stand to try to persuade the United States to alter the proposals it made at Camp David and adopt a more flexible position which shows greater understanding for the Palestinian and Arab view," a well-informed Egyptian source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia reaffirmed its stand in support of the Palestinians. The Saudi cabinet issued a statement urging the "Arab and Islamic world to work to obtain full legal rights for Palestinians, including establishing a state with Jerusalem as its capital."

As the home of Islam's two holiest shrines , Saudi Arabia has always reiterated that "Jerusalem is the core issue of the Middle East conflict." The Dome of the Rock, along with Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, are considered Islam's third holiest site.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as close allies of the US, are hoping that their positions will alter President Bill Clinton's clear bias towards Israel and his adoption of its proposals in talks with the Palestinians.

With the 13 September deadline for the conclusion of a final settlement looming on the horizon, Arafat again renewed his resolve to unilaterally declare a state if no deal is reached by that date. However, in his recent statements he did not insist categorically on the 13 September date, saying a Palestinian state would be declared "at the proper time and in consultation with Arab countries."

"Palestinians should be extremely cautious that their desire to declare a state should not blind them to the necessary requirements to establish an effective state," the Egyptian source suggested.

Similarly, Khalil Shkaki, head of a Palestinian research centre in Ramallah, told the Weekly that the declaration in and of itself is not Arafat's objective. "It is only a means to accelerate the pace of the peace process."

Tahseen Beshir, a former high-ranking Egyptinan diplomat, believes, on the other hand, that the Arab countries have failed to bring anything more substantive than rhetoric to the peace process. Given this point of view, Beshir had low expectations for the outcome of intensive Arab diplomacy in recent weeks.

Shkaki, in the West Bank agreed. "Arafat should not expect more than tacit support which is probably of little use to the Palestinian cause," he said. However, Beshir attributed the reticence of Arab countries to give explicit support to Arafat to the sensitivity of the situation. "The issue is very ticklish, no Arab leader can give up Jerusalem and I believe the usual solution in such cases is postponement [of a settlement]."

"We cannot guarantee that if Arab efforts to achieve better terms [for a settlement] failed this time, that they will succeed next time. We do not know how public opinion will be in Israel after Barak. It might shift back in favour of the hawkish right-wing. The problem is that we do not know exactly what sort of 'bribes' we can give the Israelis to obtain better terms," Beshir said.

If worse comes to worst -- if Arafat fails to obtain international support for his state but declares it nonetheless -- things will be really difficult, as Beshir pointed out. "Neither France nor any other European country issued any statements commenting on Clinton's threats on Israeli television after the failure of Camp David. Even the Arabs did not do much."


Related stories:
The great divides - 20 - 26 July 2000
Demons no longer deferred - 13 - 19 July 2000
Focus: Camp David II - 13 - 19 July 2000

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