Summit's Political Theater Could Revive Peace Process


Few observers believe that today's world summit to rescue the Middle East peace accords from the grip of death and to fight terrorism will translate into full cooperation on the ground between Israel and Arab countries.

But the Middle East is a region where political theater plays well, and this gathering will have high drama and a backdrop of important political symbols that could allow it to renew the momentum of peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel 17 years ago, when Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula, where the summit will take place. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, two stars of the summit, both replaced leaders who were assassinated for trying to make peace, and they live under the specter of the same fate.

President Clinton and Mubarak, who will co-host the summit, believe they can turn these symbols into something more substantive.

First, they hope the summit will serve to further isolate Iran, which the U.S. government says supports groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which are fighting to eliminate Israel and establish an Islamic state in the former Palestine--all of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel.

The summit hosts expect the world leaders to issue a joint statement in support of peace and against terrorism and to establish an international body through which governments, police and intelligence services can cooperate in the battle against terrorism.

And they want a charter obliging participating countries to prosecute terrorists.

The "Summit of the Peacemakers" also is likely to further the integration of Israel into the Middle East.

This will be the second time in a few months that an array of world leaders that includes many Arabs will stand shoulder to shoulder with Israel against assassins who are trying to kill the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords by killing Israelis.

The funeral of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November brought two Arab leaders--Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein--to the unified Israeli capital of Jerusalem for the first time.

Today, among the 29 participants will be at least 10 Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others that have been reluctant to appear publicly with Israel.

"Israel was excluded from the Gulf War coalition, but today we are part of the coalition against terrorism," said Yossi Beilin, an Israeli minister without portfolio and one of the architects of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

"Coordination of intelligence efforts is very important because terror is international. After this, we believe cooperation will be natural," Beilin said.

In the minds of many, this is wishful thinking. While most commentators support the idea of an international peace conference, few are as optimistic as Beilin that the summit will bring cooperation between Israeli and Arab security services.

"We don't need to convince the Americans or the Germans to fight terrorism," said Zeev Schiff, the military affairs correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz. "The question for me is if we are going to see real intelligence cooperation in the region. I doubt it."

Clinton drew a line in the sand over the summit, putting those who attend on the side of peace and those who do not on the side of what he termed "the merchants of hatred," or terrorists.

"We must not let the terrorists in the Middle East have the victory they seek--the death of the very hope for peace," Clinton said. "The solidarity of peacemakers in this world today must be stronger than bullets or bombs."

Several of the Arab countries that are weighing in for peace may be doing so because they too face threats from Islamic extremists rather than because they embrace Israel.

Nonetheless, they are standing on Israel's side of the desert line, while neighboring Syria and Lebanon opted to remain on the other side, in the camp of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and other states that support terrorism. The United States is brokering peace talks between Israel and Syria, and it tried along with Mubarak to get Syrian President Hafez Assad to attend. Assad refused.

Israel's internal politics have colored some criticism of the summit. Opponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process dismiss the gathering as a transparent effort to rescue the election bid of Peres in the May 29 national vote and to prop up the government of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Leaders of Israel's opposition Likud Party dismiss the summit as merely political theater rather than a serious effort to combat terrorism.

"It will not save one Jewish soul," said Ariel Sharon, a former defense minister and hard-line Likud member of parliament.

Undoubtedly, an international event that seems so pro-Israel will help Peres, who is rumored to have conceived the idea of the summit.

As for Arafat, the summit's goal of forming a charter obliging signatories to prosecute terrorists is aimed at him as much as anyone.

Publicly, U.S. and Israeli officials have been enthusiastic about Arafat's most recent crackdown on Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank after a rash of suicide bombings in Israel that took more than 60 lives. Some officials suggest that he has finally abandoned his policy of trying to negotiate Hamas' entry into the new Palestinian political system.

Under pressure from Israel and the United States, Arafat has arrested more than 600 militants, including 10 of 13 top Hamas military and political leaders on a list provided by Israel. He has ordered searches of mosques, Islamic colleges and universities, and Hamas social services centers.

But privately, some Americans and Israelis are skeptical that Arafat means to persevere to the point of breaking Hamas.

Some political analysts insist that a summit with so many Arab leaders lining up against terrorism gives Arafat more leeway to take on Hamas without appearing to be doing Israel's dirty work.

Security analyst Schiff, on the other hand, warns that the summit could take the pressure off Arafat. He says that by sitting the Palestinian leader at the table with heads of state and government for a conference against terrorism, the international community "grants him legitimacy as a fighter of terror before he actually has done it."

Schiff reports that Arafat was still trying to negotiate with Hamas military chiefs after the first two bus bombings, in Jerusalem and Ashkelon, on Feb. 25. In light of this, some critics call the summit "theater of the absurd."

"Counter-terrorism is not a group dynamic," said Yigal Carmon, an advisor on terrorism to former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. "You exchange intelligence and technical assistance, do joint operations. A conference by its very definition is not the forum for such a thing."

One potential flash point could arise from the Palestinians' fury about Israel's closure of the territories, which has prevented movement in and out of Palestinian-ruled areas and even between Palestinian villages and cities.

The closure has led to deepening shortages of food and medicine in the West Bank and Gaza and to widespread unemployment.

The Palestinians want to make Israel's "collective punishment of Palestinians" an issue at the conference. The Egyptians appear to be supporting them, partly in a bid for "balance" that would protect their left flank against charges that they are collaborators with the United States and Israel in a fight against Islam.

There is at least one other potential flash point at the conference--this one between the United States and Europe over Iran. The Clinton administration wants countries such as Russia and Germany to cease trade with Iran to increase pressure on the Islamic state. They are unlikely to do so.

All of these threats, however, are unlikely to dim the lights on this political theater. Even if nothing more is accomplished, the world's leaders have rushed to the Sinai to wave the flag of peace and enlist in the war on terrorism.

Who's Attending Summit

Twenty-nine countries and institutions have accepted invitations to today's anti-terrorism summit. A list of the representatives they are sending:

Algeria: Foreign Minister Ahmed Ataf.

Bahrain: Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the crown prince; Sheik Mohammed bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, foreign minister.

Britain: Prime Minister John Major.

Canada: Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Egypt: President Hosni Mubarak, Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.

France: President Jacques Chirac.

Germany: Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Ireland: Prime Minister John Bruton.

Israel: Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Italy: Prime Minister Lamberto Dini.

Japan: Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda.

Jordan: King Hussein.

Kuwait: Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al Jabbar Sabah.

Mauritania: Sheik El-Afia Wil'd Mohammed Khouna, president.

Morocco: King Hassan II.

Norway: Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, Foreign Minister Bjorn Tore Godal.

Oman: Thueini bin Shehab Al Said, personal envoy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said; Minister of Interior Sayed Badr bin Saud bin Hareb Al Busaidi; Minister of Information Abdel-Aziz bin Mohammed al-Ruwais.

Qatar: Sheik Hamad Jassim ibn Jaber al Thano, foreign minister.

Russia: President Boris Yeltsin.

Saudi Arabia: Prince Saud al-Faisal, foreign minister.

Spain: Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez.

Tunisia: Foreign Minister El-Habib ben Yehia.

Turkey: President Suleiman Demirel.

United Arab Emirates: Foreign Minister Rashid Abdullah Nuaimi.

United States: President Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Yemen: Foreign Minister Abdul-Karim al-Iryani.

Palestinian Authority: PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

United Nations: Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

European Union: Manuel Marin, vice president of European Commission with responsibility for Middle East affairs.




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