March 27, 2001
Arab summit faces new divisions from within, familiar pressures from without
by David Hirst
Palestine has almost always been the raison d’etre of Arab summitry
and it will again head the agenda when the leaders of 22 Arab states convene
in Amman Tuesday. Iraq is on the agenda too. President Saddam Hussein will
not be there, but he will cast a baleful and divisive shadow on the event.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict on one hand, Iraq and the Gulf on the other, constitute the two great zones of Middle East crisis.
“There is a clear and present danger,” the former US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, warned recently, “that the most dangerous situation in the world today the Middle East and Iraq could metastasize into a single fireball.” Saddam’s pledge to send thousands of volunteers to fight alongside the Palestinians “could create the most serious threat to world peace since the Cuban missile crisis” of 1962, Holbrooke said.
Never have the two zones been so closely and malignantly intertwined. Two things contribute to this. One is the Palestinian intifada, now in its sixth month, and the consequent rise to power in Ariel Sharon of all that is most intransigent and belligerent in Israeli society. The other is the new Republican administration in Washington and its apparent conviction that Iraq and the Gulf constitute the more important of the two crisis zones.
For the Arab leaders, Palestine alone is enough of a headache. They are supposed to hold “ordinary” summits once a year, but thanks to the divisions that beset them following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, they did not manage that for a decade. But quite suddenly, with the outbreak of the intifada, Palestine regained that potent centrality in the region’s politics and psychology that it had appeared to be losing.
Demonstrators took to the streets from the Atlantic to the Gulf; solidarity with the Palestinians was their main theme; but disgust with the inaction and incompetence of Arab regimes was a close second. It roused the kings and presidents to hold an emergency summit in Cairo last October.
The only practical measure the summit took was to establish a $1 billion fund to support the intifada. If, at the time, this and other resolutions such as a call for international protection for the Palestinians fell well below popular expectations, their implementation since then has invited even greater derision.
The Islamic Development Bank, responsible for the disbursement, says it has delivered $23 million of the $1 billion to the Occupied Territories; Palestinians put the figure at just $3 million.
Meanwhile, according to the UN, the Palestinian economy has sustained losses of $1.15 billion, unemployment has soared to 38 per cent, and about 1 million inhabitants have fallen below the poverty line.
Arab governments, invoking the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, say they want to be sure the aid goes to the right hands.
But, as the Jordanian newspaper al-Rai asked: “Has the rampant corruption in the Arab world ever held up the payment of employees’ salaries? Don’t let those who hold the money in the Arab world pretend that they have forfeited one night’s heavy gambling, one evening’s generous entertaining or one villa in Europe for the sake of the intifada.” However, as the Arab leaders meet again they cannot but be aware that, with the rise of Sharon the situation has worsened since their last encounter.
“We are back to polarization between Arabs and Israel,” a columnist in Cairo’s Al-Ahram newspaper wrote. “The collapse of the peace process has brought the whole region perilously close to the brink of war, not as a function of conscious decision but as a result of the situation spiraling out of control, even by mistake.”
Former President Bill Clinton made the quest for Middle East peace his overriding ambition; Iraq, and all its complications, became a nuisance and diversion from it. George W. Bush has reversed these priorities. He, or at least influential figures in his administration, really do want to implement the Iraqi Liberation Act whereby the US will help the Iraqi opposition to bring a “representative” government to Iraq whereby Clinton paid mere lip service. Saddam, not Sharon, is the problem on which all must “focus and unite.” And, as a vital part of that, there must be a revival of the Gulf War coalition under which the previous President Bush drove the Iraqi leader from Kuwait.
This suits Sharon, though he wants more. On his inaugural visit to the US, he sought to promote the notion that Yasser Arafat, far from being the partner for peace that until now the US and Israel had considered him to be, had reverted with a vengeance to his original “terrorist” self. If the Palestinian leader has any natural partner, it is Saddam, the Israeli right argues. The two sustain and reinforce each other. And along with others Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas they constitute a threat to Israel, the United States, and the whole moderate peace-seeking camp.
The US does not go along with all of that. But it has ceded a substantial amount of what Sharon wants. It agrees that there can be “no negotiation under fire,” a way of saying that Palestinian violence is not a normal response to occupation, and that “leaders have a responsibility to denounce violence” a way of saying that Arafat must condone the attacks on Israelis. Nor will the US force peace on the parties: They must settle matters between themselves a very pro-Israeli position, in that without external assistance the Palestinians cannot hope to dent a balance of power overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor.
Many Arab regimes would agree with the US that Saddam is a menace, though far less to Israel than to themselves. But they contend that nothing nourishes this menace like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the partisanship which the US displays there. Nothing else furnishes the Iraqi leader with such opportunities for self-aggrandizement, for turning himself the prime wrecker of the Arab and Palestinian causes into their foremost champion again.
“We know that his propaganda is often stupid, that all his talk of mobilizing millions of volunteers is demagogy,” a Jordanian politician said. “But in the absence of anyone else even thinking in military terms, he does impress the ordinary man and makes the other leaders look submissive and cowardly.”
So it is that these leaders feel under almost as much pressure to rehabilitate the Iraqi leader as they do to support the intifada.
Ironically, Egypt and Jordan, the two Arabs states which have made peace with Israel, have led the way in this. It is only the opposition of the Gulf states, who regard Saddam as a greater menace than Sharon, that will keep the summit from bringing him into the fold. But it is one thing for the US, with help from its Arab friends, to impede his rehabilitation. It is quite another to expect them to join in a campaign to bring him down.
Reviving the Gulf War coalition, said the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan, “is like trying to sell goods whose sell-by label expired long ago”.
So the harder Sharon smites the Palestinians and probably in due course Hizbullah and the Syrians too and the more the Americans besiege and imperil Saddam, the more likely it becomes that this gambler, who invaded Iran and then Kuwait, will escalate from belligerent words to belligerent deeds and, with Israel-Palestine as his arena, stage the last great, pre-emptive gamble of his tumultuous career. A Middle East fireball indeed!
David Hirst, a veteran Middle East correspondent, wrote this commentary in Amman for The Daily Star
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