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THE MIDDLE EAST

Arabs Threaten to Snub Powell if He Doesn't Meet Arafat

April 07, 2002|MICHAEL SLACKMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAIRO — The United States may hope to enlist Arab nations to help negotiate a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians, but Arab leaders are so furious with the West, they have discussed boycotting meetings with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell when he visits the region this week.

The message of anger and frustration was delivered Saturday in the form of a communique after an emergency foreign ministers meeting of the Arab League.

The ministers closed ranks behind besieged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene in the crisis and insisted that Israelis--not Palestinians--were committing acts of terror.

"We warn that we will not meet with any U.S. envoy who does not meet Arafat, and we ask, how can Powell come and meet [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon the terrorist and not meet Arafat?" Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath said in opening remarks to the conference. "I ask that all Arab capitals refuse to welcome Powell if he doesn't meet Arafat. The U.S. has to respect the Arab countries and their struggle in the face of Israel."

Powell has said he has no plans to meet with Arafat.

Shaath made his comments before President Bush sternly ordered Israel to withdraw its forces from the West Bank "without delay."

At a typically fractious event of competing agendas, one point everyone managed to agree on here was that it was time to get tougher--if not necessarily tough--with the United States. The rhetorical attacks on Israel were largely recycled. But the league stepped up its condemnation of the U.S. and did so by name.

The final statement said the meeting "affirms that the biased treatment accorded to Israel on the part of some states, particularly the U.S., makes Israel's actions as a state above international law and U.N. resolutions. . . . It therefore calls upon these states . . . to show awareness of the need to preserve [their] interest in the Arab region, and to avoid further aggravating the frustration and anger of the Arab people."

The Bush administration has said it doesn't want to make the same mistake the Clinton administration did at the Camp David peace talks in 2000 by negotiating the conflict in a vacuum, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority alone in a room with the U.S. president. Instead, Bush has dispatched Powell to the region with orders to stop first in some Arab states as part of an effort to bring the Arab community into the administration's corner.

That may be the plan, but even before the foreign ministers gathered here, it was clear that the United States was becoming increasingly unpopular among the Arab public and was shouldering almost as much blame for the Israeli military operation as the Jewish state.

Bush's Rose Garden speech Thursday did little to help the administration's cause.

Not only did the president turn off many Arab listeners with the first half of his speech, in which he strongly criticized Arafat, but he also alienated many with his insistence that suicide bombers weren't martyrs but instead were "murderers" for blowing themselves up near Israeli civilians.

Bush spoke of such matters as secular, practical ones, while to many people in the Mideast, martyrdom is a definition left to religious leaders, not politicians.

Indeed, the Arab League opened its meeting Saturday with this passage from the Koran: "Do not say of those who die in the name of Allah as dead; they are alive with their Lord."

In characterizing Bush's speech, the English-language Egyptian Gazette ran a banner headline Friday in red ink declaring, "U.S. Harps on Blaming Arafat." In the government-funded Al Ahram, Egypt's largest daily newspaper, a Page 2 cartoon Friday showed two men in conversation: "Didn't I tell you that Washington is the capital of Israel?" one man said. The second replied, "You stupid man, it is Tel Aviv that is the capital of America."

On Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, religious leaders around the region called on the public to demonstrate against Israel--and America. And demonstrate they did, in the tens of thousands. In tiny Bahrain, protesters even breached security at the U.S. Embassy and torched several cars.

Anti-American feelings have even surfaced in Kuwait, which is eager to support U.S. policy in the region out of gratitude to America, which led the war to liberate it from Iraq more than a decade ago.

"I can find no explanation for Washington's policy toward what is taking place in Palestine," Subhi Ghandour wrote recently in the Kuwait daily Al Rai al Am. "Unless perhaps, the Sept. 11 events have also caused a concussion of sorts in the minds of U.S. decision-makers."

Outside the Arab League headquarters in the center of Cairo, a small crowd of protesters chanted slogans such as "America, remove your army! Tomorrow the Arab army will step on you!"

Banners called for boycotting U.S. goods.

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