NEWS ANALYSIS : Arab Allies Getting More Skeptical About U.S. Efforts for Peace Talks : Mideast: Washington is seen as failing to extract stronger concessions from Israel in the process.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As diplomatic pressure mounts to build a final framework for peace in the Middle East, the United States faces growing skepticism among its Arab allies, whose frustration over efforts to convene a Mideast peace conference has produced doubts about America's long-term intentions in the troubled region.

Increasingly, in the months since the Persian Gulf War drew to a close, forces in the Arab world are distancing themselves from the close, wartime alliance that many enjoyed with Washington. Instead, they are calling for fundamental shifts in the American approach to the region.

Even in Egypt, historically America's closest partner in the Arab world, government leaders privately have expressed opposition to U.S. proposals for renewed air strikes to wipe out Iraq's remaining nuclear capability. Opposition politicians and pro-government intellectuals have called for easing U.S.-backed sanctions against "sisterly Iraq." And government publications have urged American diplomacy to extract stronger concessions from Israel in the peace process.

Arab leaders from radical and moderate states have expressed growing frustration at U.S. attempts to act as a simple broker in the Middle East peace process, remaining neutral on the subject of the talks. As the Arabs see it, Washington is failing to exert real pressure on Israel to halt Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The United States, the Arabs contend, should publicly endorse the concept of trading land for peace as a basis for the peace talks and declare that the status of Jerusalem, whose eastern sector was seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War, will be subject to negotiation.

"There is no clear American position in the region," a Syrian diplomat complained in an interview. "So far, they are trying to be mediator without opinion, to bring the parties together, without positions. . . .

"We don't feel still any confidence the U.S.A. will exert its role and will bear its responsibility as a superpower and honor its commitments made during the Gulf crisis, and that means it will not prevent the collapse of what we see as the honeymoon of American diplomacy in the region."

Ali E. Hillal Dessouki, a prominent Egyptian political scientist, said that, "at this point, what is expected from America is, No. 1, a statement of principles: What are the American standards on the issue of Jerusalem, the right of Israel's filled settlements in the West Bank and Gaza?"

Although both President Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III have condemned Israel's expanding settlements, saying they are an impediment to regional peace, Dessouki contended that "if the Americans don't take a serious and a firm position on issues like these, then they will make a mockery of the peace process."

"I think the Arab position is ambivalent toward America now," he added. "It's a mixture of optimism and suspicion and doubt."

In the Arab world, some suspicions were also raised with U.S. moves toward arms control in the region after the Gulf War. American officials failed to direct their attention toward Israel's nuclear capability but went so far as to threaten additional air strikes unless Iraq gave up its remaining nuclear facilities.

An Egyptian intellectual with close ties to the government of President Hosni Mubarak said Egyptians were incensed when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, while touring the region to discuss long-range arms controls, professed not to have knowledge of any Israeli nuclear capability.

"For a secretary of defense to say that, I think he's assuming a great deal of stupidity among his audience, and I think most Arabs felt insulted," the Egyptian intellectual said.

Mubarak's government is said to have privately expressed opposition to renewed U.S. air strikes, and Egypt's leading government-controlled newspaper, Al Ahram, warned recently that the prospect could plunge the region into war once again.

It editorialized: "Preoccupation with launching a military blow to Iraq's invisible nuclear facilities exceeds the 'peaceful' idea of helping the Iraqi people sidestep their plight. Why should there not be a differentiation between what is humanitarian, which is the act of helping the Iraqi people, and what is political, which is the continuation of the pursuit of the Saddam Hussein regime until it complies with political resolutions?"

A few days later, the newspaper warned that "nobody can predict the consequences of a U.S. bombardment of Iraq upon the approval of some of its allies. . . ."

A senior diplomat from one of the Arab countries allied with the United States in the coalition against Iraq observed: "The Arab position was the Arab condemnation of Iraq for the occupation of Kuwait and (support for) the liberation of Kuwait. Both were achieved. Whatever is done now is totally for the service of Israel. Why go to war for that again? It would be madness."

Gihad Auda, director of the Cairo-based Center for International and Political Development Studies, said the center recently completed a study that found there is a "high probability" the U.S. would launch air strikes against Iraq under certain conditions, including the failure of the Middle East peace process and definitive evidence that Iraq poses a continued nuclear threat.

The study also concluded that although most Arab governments--especially those in the Persian Gulf--have expressed public opposition to such an action, most Arab government leaders, counter to the apparent trend of public opinion, would privately endorse the air strikes if they meant Hussein would be rid of his ability to continue to threaten his neighbors.

"That means, we hate the idea but if there's no other way and you want to strike--do it, but we cannot come out in public and support you," Auda said.

Indeed, if there is any subject upon which Arab leaders, the Arab public and the U.S. Administration seem to agree, it is on the undesirability of Hussein at the helm in Baghdad and on confusion as to what to do about it. Hussein's pronouncements earlier this month that Iraq had won the Gulf War left the Egyptians, and others, stunned.

Mustafa Amin, one of Cairo's most popular political columnists, in an interview, rejected the idea of any further military adventurism in Iraq, citing an old Arab proverb that says "striking a dead man is forbidden." Instead, he compared Hussein to the late Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, under whose regime Amin was often jailed.

"In 1967, when Nasser was defeated, he said he was victorious. They wanted to get rid of his regime, and the regime was still there," he recalled. "Saddam is doing the same thing. He calls himself victorious. In the first instance, God finished the problem. Nasser died. Now we will see what God will do."

The issue of continuing the U.N. sanctions against Iraq has proved an agonizing one for the Arab world. Government leaders at recent Arab conferences have generally supported continuing the sanctions until Iraq fully complies with the terms of U.N. resolutions. But the Arab populace is growing uncomfortable about the suffering of Iraqis, who are regarded as neighbors and brothers.

"Are they punishing Saddam, or are they punishing the Iraqi people?" demanded one official from Jordan, whose own economy has been hit hard by the decline in trading with Iraq. "If they are punishing Saddam, this is not the way, because Saddam is still very well fed. . . . Most of the governments are continuing to support the sanctions, but believe me, most of the Arabs are against this continuing suffering of the Iraqis."

The problem in developing a unified Arab policy for the region is that, while the polarization of the Gulf War is largely gone, no genuine reconciliation has come to take its place, many analysts in the region say.

Therefore, and because of its status as the only remaining world superpower, many Arabs continue to look to the United States for direction in the Middle East. America, most say, has responded positively by attempting to attack the region's most enduring conflicts, ranging from Cyprus to the Western Sahara to the Arab-Israeli problem.

"The U.S. is doing its major grand-plan style for the first time since World War II and a massive demonstration of its hegemony over the Middle East. They're doing it with one hand, as it's never been done before, and never will be done again," Auda said.

An Arab diplomat said: "The Arab leadership--most of them want to believe there is sincerity in Washington and readiness to be fair. This is the line between a friendly Middle East, with governments that are friendly to the U.S., or a hostile Middle East, with turmoil and killings and uprisings and a putting down of governments friendly to the U.S.

"We have now a breathing space. We have some time," he said. "It could be months. It could be a year. But it won't go long."

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