Arab public opinion waxes confrontational
- Arab Leaders Face Troubling Choices In Aiding Palestinians
Summit Confronts Growing Frustration
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 30, 2001; Page A20
AMMAN, Jordan, March 29 -- The Arab leaders who represent 300 million people
and control much of the world's oil supply registered united support of the
Palestinians at the close of a summit conference here Wednesday. But not
long after the assembled Arab dignitaries issued their communique, Israeli
helicopter gunships pounded Palestinian targets in Gaza and the West Bank,
emphasizing the message by damaging the home of Palestinian leader Yasser
The sequence, summit participants acknowledged, was an example of the
problem Arab leaders face. On one hand, they feel obligated to respond to
demands from their people for strong action on behalf of the Palestinians.
But on the other, there is little they can or are willing to do to affect
the decisions of an Israeli government that follows its own security-driven
logic and is backed by the United States.
Thus, after six months of sustained Israeli-Palestinian violence and a
decade of peace discussions, frustration has stoked militancy in some Arab
countries, led to widespread public disillusionment in all of them and left
moderate governments in particular mystified about what to do.
Peace with Israel remains the preference. The summit conference communique
reiterated this. But Arab leaders and analysts say it is becoming
increasingly difficult to explain why to those angered by what they read and
view from Gaza and the West Bank.
"It undermines our ability to convince our people that this [peace] is a
viable option," said Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Illah Khatib, who
oversaw drafting of the summit's unanimous and strongly worded statement
supporting the Palestinian uprising and pledging financial support for
Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
For the last six months, Arab satellite television stations have carried
extensive coverage of the violence in the Gaza Strip, Hebron and other flash
points. The daily images of injured Palestinian men, women and children have
inflamed Arab public opinion. State-run media, meanwhile, have bowed to
public sentiment as much as they have tried to shape it or explain
Egypt's state-run broadcaster has aired frequent homages to the uprising,
from popular "We Are The World" style music videos to religious appeals
involving the liberation of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem from Israeli
control. Iraqi television has hit a militant stride in broadcasts widely
available in the region, with gun-toting, sword-waving dancers urging a
fight for the Arab homeland and President Saddam Hussein firing shots in
time to the music.
In the face of such emotional broadcasts, Arab leaders have had difficulty
explaining how limited their options are or discussing honestly how their
policies are influenced by competing priorities that sometimes rank higher
than support for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian cause may be sincerely felt in Egypt and Jordan, for
instance, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan
are not ready to tear up their peace treaties with Israel, jeopardizing
relationships with Europe and the United States. Nor are the Persian Gulf
countries ready to sacrifice oil revenue or rewrite defense agreements with
the United States in deference to Arafat, whose administration in Gaza and
the West Bank they find untrustworthy -- and who are at least as concerned
about threats from Iraq as they are about Israel.
A broader war is, for all except the Iraqi president, regarded among Arab
leaders as unthinkable and unwinnable. The Israeli army and its nuclear
capability are foreboding enough, even without the United States in the
background. And in the street, even people outraged at what they consider
Israeli repression of the Palestinians acknowledge that taking on the
U.S.-backed Israeli military is out of the question.
"If America stood aside, we would take steps," said George Naber, who owns a
chain of supermarkets in Jordan with his brother and who provides evidence
that disgust with America's support of Israel runs deep in the Arab world.
"I would go and fight. But nobody can stand in front of America. . . . It
would be like suicide."
The distinction between what the Arab public would like and what its leaders
can deliver is often used to frame what many consider one of the goals of
events such as the two-day Arab summit here -- to create at least an
appearance of decisive action even if the net effect on Israeli or American
policies seems minuscule.
Such summits are, said Jordanian political satirist Nabil Salwaha,
face-saving exercises for leaders worried mostly about their own survival
and unable to answer a population angry that a collection of nations so much
larger than Israel, and with resources the world needs, wields so little
"The interest of the Arab nation is not one of the leaders' priorities. . .
. There is no aim but survival," Salwaha said. "Because we are in a
situation of low morale, we hang on an exciting word or a militant
Some former government officials, or coffee-house philosophers, argue that
the continued inability of Arab leaders to resolve the issue will eventually
cost one of them his job, a prediction that inevitably spawns a domino
theory of Arab governments tumbling in a wave of pro-Palestinian militancy.
But cooler heads advise that leaders should simply be more honest with their
people, use the tools in hand and hope that Israel exhausts itself in
"All of them know their people are against them," said Moraiwid Tell, a
former adviser to Jordan's late King Hussein. "We can't fight. We won't. But
in the long run, Israel can't survive. It's a garrison state implanted in an
area where everyone is against it."
� 2001 The Washington Post Company
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