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Skepticism Among Arabs Confronts the Latest Plan

Lessons of history and anger at Iraq war dim the flickers of hope for a Middle East peace.

June 10, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan -- Usama Takriti, a 38-year-old Jordanian software developer, is exactly the kind of man who has everything to gain in a new Middle East.

Peace with neighboring Israel could open a vibrant new market for his high-tech products and kick-start the moribund regional economy. But Takriti, watching his curly-haired kids gobble pizza in the air-conditioned food court of an upscale shopping mall here, wondered aloud whether this part of the world would ever find its way to a genuine peace.

"Not in my lifetime, I don't think," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe in theirs. Maybe."

Across the Arab world, the dramatic inauguration of an American effort to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock is being greeted with a skepticism born of years of disillusionment over failed peace moves, laced with lingering anger over the Iraq war and its chaotic aftermath.

The flickers of hope that exist are tempered by a sense that it may already be too late.

In cafes and smoke-shrouded coffeehouses, in sun-baked university plazas and ancient market alleyways, few ordinary Arabs appeared to attach any real importance to last week's summits in Sharm el Sheik, the Egyptian Red Sea resort where Bush personally wooed a select group of Arab leaders, or in Aqaba, the old Jordanian port city where Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly clasped hands and pledged to set out together on a path toward Palestinian statehood.

"When I hear about these peace talks, I don't believe Israel and the United States are sincere," said Hala Elywat, a 21-year-old university student in Karak, about 60 miles south of Amman. "If they want peace, it is because they have only their own interests in mind."

In the most pragmatic of terms, many people here believe that an America strong enough to impose its will in Iraq can probably do the same when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps because of this, President Bush's diplomatic initiative is escaping overt denunciation even in some quarters where expressions of bitter anti-Americanism are the norm.

At the cool, colonnaded Husseini Mosque, the largest and oldest in the Jordanian capital, imams routinely deliver fiery sermons condemning the U.S. military campaign to topple Saddam Hussein and the Bush administration's support for Israel. But the main admonition from the pulpit at Friday prayers last week was that students should study hard for their exams.

"No one hates peace -- it's not in our nature," said Ibrahim Abdel Allal, an Egyptian who works for an import-export company and was enjoying a late-afternoon nargileh, or water pipe, in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in downtown Amman.

"It's late for this attempt to come to solve things, we think -- very, very late," he said, pausing between fragrant puffs of apple-scented tobacco. "But it's better than never, and it's better than nothing."

The U.S. and its allies, by and large, view the end of the conflict in Iraq as a crucial strategic opening for democracy. In such a climate, the reasoning goes, prospects for finding a solution to the long-festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict are as good as they have been in many years.

But in much of the Middle East, particularly in countries abutting Iraq, the postwar phase is viewed not as the dawn of a bright new era, but one burdened by bewildering new ills.

"I watch television, and every day I see people suffering in Baghdad from crime and violence and poverty, and hear them saying it was better under Saddam," said Lama Hadi, a 37-year-old Saudi national living in Jordan with her husband and children. "And I ask myself, what is there to celebrate here? And why should we thank America for this? Or for anything else?"

Unease over what is already seen as a checkered U.S. stewardship of postwar Iraq is particularly acute in neighboring Jordan, where the government and ordinary Jordanians alike fear an outbreak of instability on their doorstep.

During the war in Iraq, television coverage of the fighting, particularly on the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera, gave many people here a vivid and personal sense of the conflict. That has also been true throughout the 32 months of the Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Images of strife in the Palestinian territories, even relatively low-level daily violence that might draw scant attention in the West, flicker away night after night on TV screens across the Arab world, often featuring scenes of suffering that would be deemed too gruesome to be shown elsewhere.

With that as a backdrop, Bush nonetheless won approval in some quarters for his hands-on bid to move the peace plan forward. But some declared that his personal involvement in the peace process -- the first of his presidency -- was too little, too late.

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