A stern-faced Iraqi delegation joined the Arab League Council on Saturday as Arab leaders began the painstaking process of healing the wounds of the Persian Gulf War. But the victors of the conflict have made it clear that they will determine the agenda for a new Middle East.
Convening for the first time since the beginning of hostilities, Arab League delegates stepped out of their limousines at the league’s historic headquarters in downtown Cairo, exchanged hasty declarations of mutual resolve to restore the battered notion of Arab unity and then quickly adjourned--testimony to the fractures that still split the alliance and threaten to bedevil efforts to smooth over the war’s lingering effects.
“Our meeting today is historical by any measure, and I would not exaggerate if I said that all the eyes of the world are upon us,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid. “We hope to make this session a bridge to cross from the pain of the present to the hope of the future . . . to construct a new Arab order built on trust.”
But Egypt’s official delegate to the gathering, Mahmoud Abul-Nasser, cautioned against expecting too much from the Arab world’s first tentative steps toward reconciliation. “The wounds are still open from the war,” he said.
Indeed, the hopeful resolve in Cairo landed with a thud in the Persian Gulf, where Kuwait and its neighbors made it clear that the time for healing is not yet here. “No forgiveness, no forgetting,” Abdullah Bishara, head of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, said flatly in announcing a cutoff in aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization and Jordan, both supporters of Iraq during the seven-month Gulf crisis.
Egypt made it clear that the Arab coalition partners that prevailed over Iraq, led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, are prepared now to set the agenda for the new Arab order, beginning with the Arab world’s most fundamental and long-running dilemma, the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In spelling out the principles for establishing peace and security in the region with Arab delegates on Saturday, Meguid pointedly failed to set out any specific role for the PLO--a decided turnaround from the days before the Gulf crisis, when Egypt insisted that the PLO approve any delegation selected to represent the Palestinians in peace talks with Israel.
In an apparent signal that members of the allied coalition against Iraq are not inclined to forget the PLO’s support for Baghdad, Meguid endorsed the idea of an international conference as an “appropriate forum” for resolving the Palestine issue, but made no mention of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians in determining the agenda or selecting the delegates to such a forum.
Instead, the Egyptian foreign minister said efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue must be based on a number of principles that include “the participation of the Palestinian people as an essential party in all efforts to achieve a solution.”
PLO representatives sat near the Iraqi delegation and made few public comments during Saturday’s session, but diplomats here say there are indications that the PLO is in a conciliatory mood and is not prepared to argue the point.
“The PLO is doing a lot of fresh thinking,” said one diplomat familiar with the peace process. “I think just now you will see them in a much more cooperative mood than before the war. Their primary protector just got nailed. Beyond that, their position with the Arabs who count now is in the toilet. They’re out of money. . . .”
Egyptian diplomats said the agenda of the weekend meeting was deliberately kept non-controversial and adjourned quickly in order to keep the business of the day to the minimum necessary: establishing that the Arab League, after years in exile following Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, is officially functioning again in Cairo and that the full membership of the league is prepared to convene again in the wake of the war.
“It’s the Arab governments feeling the need to start finding their way to clearing the Arab woods and preparing the ground for renewal once the dust of Desert Storm ends,” said Tahseen Bashir, a former Egyptian diplomat who retains close ties to senior government officials.
“This is only preparing the ground for the future, nothing more,” he said. “For anything more, it is too early. Wounds only heal when you have a perfect agreement as to what course of healing is adopted.”
Iraq’s representative, Saad Qassem Hammoudi, a senior Foreign Ministry official, sat silently at the end of the table during the public session.
He told reporters that Iraq is determined “to put what happened behind us and look ahead to better things.”
But he said he hopes the Arab League will use its influence to act against the U.S. role in Iraq, which he said amounts to an “occupation,” and he said the effects of the allied bombing in Iraq were “worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
However, he said the present situation in Iraq is “excellent,” with Iraqi government forces in control of all parts of the country with the exception of “some small spots of trouble in the north.”
“We will eliminate them, with God’s help,” he said.