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The Folly of the Arab Embrace of Sheik Yassin

Middle East: The welcome given the leader of Hamas is more damaging than Netanyahu's recalcitrance.

June 08, 1998|HENRY SIEGMAN | Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. These views are his own

Leaders of Arab countries friendly to the United States are deeply disappointed with the American role in the Middle East peace process. The Clinton administration has permitted Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to paralyze the peace process without even as much as calling his obstructionism by its right name.

Arab leaders have good reason to be angry at the U.S., especially at the pandering by both Republican and Democratic legislators to the most hawkish sentiment in the American Jewish community. The unprincipled behavior of Congress and the weakness of the administration threaten to return the region to its violent past, to endanger major American interests and to destabilize the regimes of friendly allies.

But these Arab critics of U.S. policy should look at their own behavior first, for it is no less destructive of Middle East peace and indeed of the stability of their own regimes than is American behavior. Nothing is better calculated to destroy what little hope there is of rescuing the Oslo accords and putting the peace process back on track than the welcome that Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas, is receiving from Arab governments, and most especially from the Gulf countries.

During the past several weeks, Yassin has been warmly received by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Yemen, not to mention Iran, Syria and the Sudan. Arab criticisms of Netanyahu's policies are absurdly inconsistent with a celebration of Yassin and Hamas. One cannot be against Netanyahu but for Hamas. After all, it was the terrorist outrages of Hamas in February and March 1996 that brought Netanyahu to power. More of Hamas can only mean more of Netanyahu and his policies.

It is not just a question of consistency. Yassin is being given conspicuous platforms from which to spout the most hateful threats against Israel, promising the country's complete obliteration. Do not Arab leaders in the Gulf understand how their hospitality to this violent rhetoric will turn off even those in Israel who want Oslo to succeed and who support Palestinian statehood? Particularly incomprehensible is the willingness of Yassin's Arab hosts to provide him and his organization with financing. The notion that this money is intended for charitable purposes insults the intelligence. Arab leaders who are funneling these funds to Hamas know that at least some of it will be used by Hamas suicide bombers to blow up innocent Israeli women and children.

There was a time when Gulf countries deluded themselves that they could buy protection by paying off terrorists. One would have thought they learned the folly of that notion following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqi depredations were fully supported not only by the Palestine Liberation Organization but also by extremist fundamentalists to whom Gulf countries were paying protection money.

The support that many in the Gulf and others in the region are giving Yassin and Hamas will destroy prospects for regional peace even more surely than Netanyahu's policies. This is so because sooner or later, Israelis will wake up to the destructive implications of the policies pursued by Netanyahu in the name of security. The palpable damage Netanyahu has done to Israel's security by increasing its isolation in the region and its alienation from traditional friends in Europe and even from the U.S. will not be tolerated by Israel's electorate for long.

An ascendant Hamas, on the other hand, would spell the end of Yasser Arafat. Arab leaders who are now cynically giving red-carpet treatment to Yassin should think hard about a basic Middle East truth: There is no Palestinian leader on the horizon today who can sell a peace agreement to the Palestinian people that falls short of maximal Palestinian demands (i.e. a full return to the 1967 borders and control of East Jerusalem) other than Arafat. Actions that undermine Arafat, whether pursued by this Israeli government or by Arab regimes, will return the region to violence and stagnation.

This prospect may be acceptable to Netanyahu, for whom any alternative may be preferable to returning territory to the Palestinians. But why would Arab leaders want to play into his hands?

Such self-destructive Arab actions are part of a larger Arab policy failure. Many Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, have failed to pursue proactive policies intended to persuade the critical Israeli center, which invariably decides whether a Likud or a Labor government will be in power, that the territorial compromises required for peace would be fully compensated for by the normalcy, friendship and stability that peace would bring.

Instead, they have essentially acted as disinterested parties on the sidelines, observing developments rather than helping to shape them. Such a passive posture falls far short of the challenges of peacemaking in this difficult part of the world. The burden of peacemaking and the risks that inevitably go with it must be assumed by all of the countries of the region, not only by Israel and its immediate neighbors.

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