Annan Raps Israel but Urges Arabs to Accept Jewish State


Standing before Arab kings, presidents and top officials, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan sharply criticized Israel on Tuesday for its “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people and what he labeled its long occupation of Arab lands.

But in a straightforward yet measured approach, Annan also laid a share of the blame for the Israeli-Palestinian crisis at the feet of the Arab leaders, saying they would have far more credibility if they accepted Israel’s right to exist.

“Amid the tensions and rhetoric a key point is often lost: The international community and the Arab world have every right to criticize Israel for its continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory and for its excessively harsh response” to the Palestinian uprising, he told the Arab League summit here. “Collective punishment has cast a pall upon the already tense occupied territories.”


But he told the Arab leaders that they could make a stronger case for themselves “if many Israelis did not believe that their very existence is under threat. Israel has a right . . . to exist in safety within internationally recognized borders.”

Jordanian King Abdullah II invited the secretary-general to address the opening session of the 22-nation Arab League gathering. Annan’s brief remarks were the only ones here Tuesday that struck a balance between the complaints of the Arabs and the fears of the Israelis.

In general, the Arab leadership lashed out in predictable fashion, with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud virtually calling for armed resistance against the Jewish state and Syrian President Bashar Assad charging that Israeli society is “more racist than the Nazis.”

But while the opening session gave the leaders a chance to air their sentiments to a public audience, the real work was taking place behind closed doors. There, negotiators sought to address the economic and social crisis facing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the demands by Iraq that the Arab leaders ignore U.N. sanctions against the Persian Gulf nation.

Both issues highlighted existing tensions within the Arab League, whose members have a common culture and language but different--in some cases competing--national interests.

Negotiators had produced a draft declaration to be taken up by the leaders today. While highlighting the need for Arab unity for social, political and economic reasons, the document does little to substantively advance either the Iraqi or Palestinian issues. There are, however, small markers of progress.


For example, the declaration calls “for an end to the sanctions imposed on Iraq”--a statement which, if ultimately accepted by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, demonstrates a subtle shift toward rapprochement. Before the summit, both those nations, which battled Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, had indicated that they would state their support only for the Iraqi people, not the Iraqi state.

For a time, officials had been hopeful that a broader compromise could be reached. Although they had not given up complete hope Tuesday, Iraqi officials gave no indication that they were willing to compromise.

At the same time, the draft would disappoint the Palestinians in their goal of gaining broader support for their uprising. The Arab leaders are almost certain to disregard calls for a complete economic and diplomatic boycott of Israel, although they are promising to work out a mechanism for giving the Palestinian Authority $40 million a month in direct aid to pay salaries of public workers.

In New York late Tuesday, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution backing a U.N. observer force to help protect Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had vehemently opposed the force.

Britain, France, Ireland and Norway abstained, and nine other members approved. Ukraine didn’t vote. The Palestinians’ allies on the council said they wanted a decision before the Arab summit concludes today.

Political observers here and in Egypt say the summit is unlikely to satisfy an Arab public that is angry and frustrated by everything from the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to the strain of economic hardship.


Nevertheless, they indicate that incremental improvement in ties between Iraq and its neighbors, a push for a united Arab agenda and steps toward economic cooperation would be accomplishments for a group that often fails to get beyond rhetoric.

“The people will not be satisfied with anything but complete [Israeli] withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Probably people will not be satisfied with this summit,” said Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. But, he added, “I think [the Arab leaders] know they are being exposed, they know they are being criticized--it is finally catching up with them that they need to deliver.”