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This Time, Arab Support of Mideast Plan Is Cautious

May 07, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — A war-weary Arab world has greeted the Bush administration's "road map" for a settlement in the Middle East with uneasy support and continued fears that it will be the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who will be forced to make concessions for peace.

The subdued response, reflected in the Arab press and by political analysts, stands in marked contrast to the sense of excitement and hopefulness that swept the region after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when an international conference in Madrid attended by Israelis and Arabs raised expectations of a lasting breakthrough.

Still, moderate Arabs -- although suspicious of U.S. intentions -- are relieved that Washington has reengaged in the peace process, and they generally see the road map as offering an acceptable solution to the 55-year-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict if it is implemented as presented, without Israeli amendments. The words Egyptian President Anwar Sadat spoke a generation ago still ring true, they believe: "The Americans hold 99% of the cards for peace in the Middle East."

"The American vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement was not born in a vacuum," Al Quds, a Palestinian daily, editorialized. "It was the result of years of efforts, initiatives and negotiations that took place all over the world.

"It is neither acceptable nor indeed feasible that any amendments should be introduced to the road map now, since that would mean altering points that have already been agreed upon by the two parties, and guaranteed by the Americans as well as by other countries."

The road map, which Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is scheduled to discuss with Arab leaders on a trip to the Middle East this weekend, calls for an immediate cease-fire, a crackdown on Palestinian militias, an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns, the dismantling of Jewish settlements erected since March 2001 and a Palestinian nation by 2005.

Emad Gad, an expert on Israeli politics at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies, said "there is an ideal chance for reaching a settlement" now that new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has formed a government. But he added that the Bush administration must move quickly to convince a skeptical and demoralized Arab public that its interests go beyond Israel's security.

"There are those who are waiting for Abu Mazen's failure," he said. The rejectionists he referred to are groups such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah that do not accept the existence of Israel and others who believe violence is the only means at their disposal to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Their ability to perpetuate a cycle of violence -- perhaps derailing any peace process -- was underscored by a suicide bombing last week in Tel Aviv that killed three Israelis only hours after Abbas had told Palestinian lawmakers of his determination to stamp out "armed chaos." Israel responded to the bombing with attacks in the Gaza Strip and West Bank that killed 14 Palestinians. Many Arabs fear there could be a Palestinian civil war if Abbas attempts to crack down on Hamas and other terrorist groups targeting Israeli civilians.

"Logic requires that the Palestinian Cabinet be given a chance by both sides to play the role expected of it," the Saudi Arabian daily Al Watan said in an editorial. "For the Palestinian opposition factions to insist on carrying weapons, and for the Israeli government to insist on pursuing its repression and annexing more territory, will only lead the road map to being discarded in the wastepaper basket, as happened before with the Oslo agreement," which then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sealed with a handshake at the White House.

If there is one point on which Arabs agree, it is that the Palestinian Cabinet faces a daunting task selling to its people a peace plan that appears to many to demand more of the Palestinians than of the Israelis.

The reality in Abbas' view, says Saudi commentator Abdelkarim Abunasar, is that the Palestinians are militarily defeated, politically boxed into a corner and in danger of losing the gains they've made over the last decade. But this alone may not be emotionally persuasive to those motivated by a lifetime of humiliation and anger, he adds.

"There is a state of disorientation in the region in the aftermath of the Iraq war," said Amr Hamzawi, a political scientist at Cairo University. "If the road map results in concessions to the Palestinians, it could get a positive reaction on the Arab street by offering people used to defeat a chance to save face. People could say, 'This is better than nothing.' "

*

Special correspondent Hossam Hamalawy contributed to this report.

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