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Arab States Move to Freeze Israel Ties

Mideast: Step comes after Arafat tells Cairo meeting that West Bank tank deployment is 'declaration of war.' Netanyahu had urged nations to think of 'larger interests.'

March 31, 1997|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — Angered by the settlement policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Arab countries on Sunday moved to freeze relations with the Jewish state in a sharp symbolic rebuke that could mean a major reversal of Israel's hard-won diplomatic gains of the past several years.

At a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, a resolution recommended that the league's 22 member states stop normalizing relations and close any Israeli trade offices and missions that have opened in their countries.

The ministers' action followed an emotional speech by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who said the deployment of Israeli tanks in the West Bank over the weekend to contain Palestinian protests amounted to a "declaration of war . . . against our unarmed people."

The resolution, approved Sunday night in a four-hour closed meeting, recommends that Arab states "which have established normal ties with Israel . . . freeze [those] relations until Israel agrees to implement its peace agreements with all Arab sides and stops violating the accords," news service reports said.

The resolution was not automatically binding, and individual governments must still decide how to implement the recommendation. The two countries that have formal peace treaties with Israel--Egypt and Jordan--were not expected to abrogate the treaties or back away from economic cooperation already underway.

Nevertheless, the resolution represented a rebuke that will be a disappointment to Netanyahu's government. "I would urge the Arab countries to think of their larger interests, their longer interests," Netanyahu told CBS-TV's "Face the Nation" program while the resolution was still being debated.

On the same program, Netanyahu accused Palestinians of unleashing "terrorism as a weapon of the negotiations" and lamented "a virtual collapse of the peace process."

The process has been stalled since the ground breaking for a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem earlier this month and a suicide bombing that killed three Israeli women in a Tel Aviv cafe March 21.

Once totally cut off from its Arab neighbors, Israel had by 1996 established--under the Labor Party-led governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres--at least low-level ties with eight of the 22 Arab League members: Egypt, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, the Palestinians, Qatar and Tunisia.

In addition, other Arab countries have been cooperating with Israel in multilateral forums, and a long-standing Arab economic boycott against Israel has been eased.

Although these relations were tentative, they had created a valuable perception that the region was moving toward peace, and they contributed to increased confidence among foreign investors.

Leor Bendor, an Israeli diplomat in Cairo, suggested that the Arab countries could suffer more in the long run if they shut themselves off from economic cooperation with Israel's developed economy.

"Arab unity is flourishing now. But after that, where is the economic progress?" he said.

The ministers' resolution reflected the deep anger, both at the grass-roots level and in capitals across the Arab world, at Netanyahu's conduct of the peace process since he assumed office--and particularly at his decision to start building the Jewish neighborhood on a hillside in southeastern Jerusalem that is known as Har Homa in Hebrew and Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic.

"We must confront this barbaric challenge and stand up to Israel's defiance of the will and resolutions of the international community," Arab League Secretary-General Ahmad Esmat Abdel Meguid said in a speech.

In Arab eyes, the neighborhood will be the last link in a ring of Jewish communities around Jerusalem, cutting it off from Palestinian-controlled territories in the West Bank and preempting the Palestinians' aspirations to have a sovereign state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The fate of Jerusalem is supposed to be negotiated in "final status" talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Palestinians say the new construction violates previous agreements by imposing facts on the ground that were to have been left to negotiation. Israel responds that there is nothing in any of the prior agreements to stop it from erecting needed housing anywhere in Jerusalem.

After 11 straight days of sometimes violent demonstrations in the West Bank against the project, Arab governments had been under considerable pressure to move beyond mere verbal condemnation.

In a Friday sermon at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque heard by 25,000 people, the mufti of Jerusalem mocked Arab governments' tepid response to the Israeli actions.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal said Sunday that the Arab League resolution should not be considered a blow against the peace process but rather an attempt to salvage peace by prompting Israel to reexamine its policies.

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