CAIRO — The upcoming "Summit of the Peacemakers" in Egypt has underscored stubborn divisions in the Muslim world as countries are forced to show, through their attendance, whether they support or repudiate the Middle East peace process.
Some governments and Islamic militants charge that the conference is a sham to legitimize U.S. and Israeli dominance in the region, condone harsh security measures against Palestinians and undermine what they regard as the legitimate right of Arabs to fight to liberate their "occupied" territories.
In the words of a commentator in the Lebanese daily An Nahar, Wednesday's meeting in the tiny Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik is intended to "abolish the difference between terrorism and resistance."
But other Arab governments, hoping for a Mideast peace that would bring greater stability and prosperity to the region, have responded enthusiastically to the call for the conference. Not coincidentally, some of these regimes are threatened themselves by the rising tide of Islamic extremism.
But because popular opinion in most Arab countries has been slow to reconcile itself to peace with Israel, participation in a high-profile summit called in response to a recent wave of violence against Israelis has been a politically risky option for many Arab governments.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and most of the oil-rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf will attend. A statement issued by their Gulf Cooperation Council called for all countries to band together to stamp out terrorism.
"The supply routes and activities of terrorists go beyond the political boundaries of states and the geographical frontiers of continents," the council said.
The main criticism being leveled against the conference is that the meeting comes only in response to the killing of Israeli citizens; the world's outrage was far less vocal after past attacks by Israel's army or killings of Arabs by Jewish extremists.
Despite such sentiments, most Arab governments have fallen in line with the conference jointly called by President Clinton and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In New York on Monday, Clinton said of the summit: "Leaders from all over the world will stand as one for peace to combat the merchant of hatred with every means in our command.
"We must not let the terrorists in the Mideast have the victory they seek--the death of the very hope for peace," he urged.
About 30 countries are scheduled to attend. Besides Clinton and Mubarak, the list of world leaders includes Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, British Prime Minister John Major, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
From the Mideast, Jordan will be there, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states of Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, plus most Arab countries in North Africa.
Iran, Iraq and Libya--accused of being sponsors of terrorist groups--were not invited and would not have been likely to attend in any case. That leaves two key holdouts, Lebanon and Syria.
Neither Syria nor Lebanon has signed a peace accord with Israel, and each harbors groups strongly opposed to the peace process. But their absence from the conference will nevertheless be somewhat embarrassing for their leaders, implying that they condone terrorist attacks.
Syria has tried to deflect criticism for its expected nonattendance by instead calling for a multinational peace summit in Madrid to restart stalled Middle East peace talks.
Lebanon, which tends to be guided by its larger neighbor Syria in foreign affairs, said it will not attend because the concerns of the summit are lopsided.
"This summit comes directly in response to the violence that occurred in Israel. But violence is not confined to Israel only. It's directed against Arab countries, at the top of which is Lebanon," said Lebanese Foreign Minister Faris Bouez.
In Washington, the Clinton administration said it had made a concerted effort to persuade Syria and Lebanon to attend.
"We, of course, have had several discussions with the Syrian leadership about this issue," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said. "We think it's important that they be there. This is the 'Summit of the Peacemakers,' of countries interested in Middle East peace, of countries interested in isolating the terrorist groups in the Middle East that are making peace so difficult to talk about."
But even Syria and Lebanon have entered into negotiations with Israel and are expected to reach peace eventually. With that in mind, many in the Middle East see the rejectionist viewpoint of countries such as Iran and Libya as increasingly isolated.
"The wagon of peace is approaching at top speed. Those who stand in its way will be either crazy or stupid," said Fouas Hashem, a columnist for Kuwait's Al Watan daily.
Times staff writers Norman Kempster in Washington and John J. Goldman in New York contributed to this report.