As U.S. envoy Dennis B. Ross flew to Israel on Thursday to try to halt the unraveling of the peace process, 15 Islamic foreign ministers gathered in Morocco to debate calls for a freeze in economic relations with Israel until it stops building new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.
Even friendly Arab nations such as Egypt and Jordan would be called upon to stop doing business with Israel under a draft resolution prepared in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to start the housing project last week.
At a pan-Arab summit held in Cairo in June, Arab leaders went on record to support the peace process but warned that if Netanyahu--who had recently been elected--abandoned the “land-for-peace” principle, there would be a corresponding withdrawal on the Arab side.
Nine months later, Arab governments say they have lost faith in Netanyahu’s commitment to peace; meanwhile, they are under mounting pressure from their populations to move beyond verbal protests and take steps to isolate Israel.
“Jerusalem is sensitive,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Amir Moussa at the summit in Rabat. “We cannot accept this way of dealing with the issue.”
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was in the Moroccan capital for the summit, a meeting of the 15-member Jerusalem Committee of the Islamic Conference Organization, that was called to debate a united Arab response.
The meeting was being chaired by Morocco’s King Hassan II, a leader who in the past has been friendly toward Israel.
Ross spent two hours with Arafat there, delivering a private letter from President Clinton and taking in the Palestinian leader’s views of the current crisis. Then he flew to Israel, where a meeting was scheduled about midnight at the Jerusalem home of Netanyahu.
In Washington, Clinton said Ross was encouraged by his talks with Arafat. But the president declined to drop even a hint on the substance of the meeting.
Ross “had a very good meeting with Chairman Arafat, and he’s proceeding now on his trip, and I don’t have anything else to tell you,” Clinton told reporters at the White House.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticized Arafat for failing to do enough to prevent violence by Palestinians.
Although Albright stopped short of endorsing Israeli charges that Arafat gave a “green light” to Palestinian suicide bombers, she said he must make it absolutely clear that he does not support violence.
Arafat publicly condemned the bombing of a Tel Aviv cafe a week ago that killed three Israelis and the Palestinian bomber, but the secretary of state implied that he could do more.
“What we think is that it is very important for Chairman Arafat to give a red light to the terrorist activities,” Albright said.
The official Syrian newspaper Tishrin said in an editorial Thursday that Arab countries are waiting for something new from Ross and the Clinton administration--"an honest position that takes into consideration the necessity of establishing a just peace and not to cover up Israel’s aggressive policies.”
Groundbreaking on the site known to Israelis as Har Homa and to Arabs as Jabal Abu Ghneim set off eight days of violence.
In addition to the Tel Aviv bombing, Israeli troops and Palestinian stone-throwers have clashed repeatedly.
Authorities are bracing for more violence this weekend, which coincides with Land Day, an annual day of protest by Israeli Arabs marking the expropriation of lands in northern Israel in 1976.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said tanks will be moved to the outskirts of Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank as a precaution, and Israeli officials warned that they will answer force with force if the demonstrations get out of hand.
At the Rabat meeting, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians are proposing a draft resolution that calls for Arab and Islamic countries to immediately freeze ties with Israel, suspend multilateral negotiations and withdraw from any joint economic projects, the Egyptian government newspaper Al Akhbar reported Thursday.
The resolution is meant to build on a weekend statement passed in Islamabad, Pakistan, by the Islamic Conference Organization, which represents 54 states and about 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide.
The ICO urged Islamic states to “review relations with Israel and make them contingent on progress achieved in the peace process.”
Arab frustration has been steadily mounting over the past week.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, citing diplomatic sources, said the idea of a formal freeze on normalization of relations with Israel appears to be gaining ground among Arab leaders.
There is also discussion of holding a summit of Arab heads of state in Damascus, which would be a signal that Arab governments are moving in the direction of Syria’s hard-line anti-Israeli stance.
“There is very strong pressure on Egypt,” said Salama Ahmed Salama, one of that country’s most prominent political commentators.
For Muslims and Arabs, he said, the Har Homa project represents a collapse in Arab hopes to regain even part of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Arab governments “just cannot swallow the fact that Jerusalem will be finished, over and done with, and then still go ahead with other points at the negotiating table,” he said.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.