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With a lot to lose over talks, Arabs look for a silver lining

Times Staff Writer

This week’s Middle East conference in Annapolis, Md., has highlighted Arab unease over the ability and will of a weak U.S. president to deliver peace. At the same time, it has stoked fears that Israel has scored a public relations coup while refusing to concede on such core issues as Palestinian refugees and the fate of Jerusalem.

Arab nations, most notably Syria and Saudi Arabia, had been reluctant to attend the U.S.-sponsored talks, which are meant to set the framework for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Now, with their prestige on the line, Arab officials are returning to their capitals with two tasks: convincing their populations that the summit was a crucial step toward a Palestinian state and keeping pressure on the U.S. and Israel to deliver on that goal.

It is a politically risky situation marked by skepticism and mistrust as well as occasional resolve. Arabs were encouraged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, at least temporarily, moved to center stage. But turmoil in Lebanon, war in Iraq and a rising Iran have complicated Middle East politics beyond the nuances of what unfolds between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Such instabilities, however, are often inextricably linked to the quest for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Arab leaders worry that if Abbas is perceived to have gained little from Annapolis, it will strengthen Iranian-backed militant groups, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. One of the main reasons Sunni Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia agreed to participate in the summit was to counter Iran’s political involvement across the region, including its alliance with Syria and influence in Iraq.

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“Stagnation in the peace process has increased the appeal for extremist ideologies. Feelings of despair and frustration have reached a dangerously high level,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal. “It is time to bring this conflict to an end, and to enable the people of the region to divert their energies from war and destruction to peace and development.”

State-controlled Iranian media seized on the Annapolis conference to assert that neither an Israeli-Palestinian peace nor a wider Middle East calm was possible without the blessing of Tehran, which Washington did not invite to the summit, partly in protest of Iran’s nuclear program. Also not invited were Hezbollah or Hamas, which took control of the Gaza Strip in June, driving out Abbas’ Fatah movement.

“The U.S.-hosted peace conference has been heavily overshadowed by Iran and its powerful allies and as a result no specific goals are expected to be achieved by the conference,” wrote Iran’s hard-line Kayhan daily newspaper. “This is another victory for Iranian diplomacy. The main objective of the conference is to take the Palestine conflict out of Iran’s hands. However, no one knows how this will happen.”

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told reporters Wednesday that the conference would be “fruitless” because Hamas, “the real representatives of the Palestinian nation and Palestinian resistance groups, did not attend the meeting and the rights, votes and will of this nation were not recognized.”

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Some Arab commentators, however, sought to downplay the tensions between Shiite-dominated Iran and its Sunni neighbors, fearing that bickering and divisions among Muslim governments would shift attention away from Israel’s decades-long suppression of Palestinian aspirations.

“The notion that there is a moderate camp and an extremist camp, and that the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] and Israel, together with others, are in the first, while Iran, Hamas, Syria and Hezbollah are in the second -- is false,” Jamal Khashoggi, a political analyst, wrote in the Saudi daily Al Watan. “The Kingdom, Iran, Syria, Hamas, together with Egypt, Jordan and every other Arab state, are part of a single camp linked by history, religion, language and the East. Israel is something different altogether.”

Still, some commentators said there had already been a cost to the Arab nations that attended the Annapolis session.

“The Arabs paid the price of the conference in advance by going there,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “What they got out of the conference is promises, which I don’t think are credible enough.” Arab representatives underscored that attending the conference would not constitute “normalization” of ties between Israel and the Arab world unless Israel agreed to a negotiated peace agreement that would establish a Palestinian state. Saudi Arabia’s Faisal and other officials were careful to avoid what they felt would be a public relations disaster: a photo op or public handshake with Israelis at a U.S.-sponsored summit held with lowered expectations.

“Israel is . . . focusing its efforts on achieving normalization with the Arab states, which it insists on, even before taking any real steps toward peace,” said an editorial in Al Watan. “This runs totally counter to the official and public Arab position, which refuses any normalization before settling the major issues. It is true that a faint light seems to glimmer at the end of the tunnel. But the path toward achieving an honorable peace . . . remains thorny.”

Erfan Nizameddin, a commentator for the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, was more blunt: “How can we be optimistic if we witness the world’s biggest deception process, whereby the fundamental issues are put on hold for the sake of a conference to show off and have pictures?”

The Arab world still appears a bit confused over the Bush administration’s new initiative to restart the Middle East peace process after seven years of near-inaction. Some in the Middle East media have referred to it as “the U.S. awakening.”

Arab commentators credit Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s diplomacy in bringing together the conference, but then they quickly ask what can be done as Bush enters his final year in office and Abbas and Olmert have lost the confidence of their publics.

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“Arab leaders have no illusions about what the conference would achieve for them,” wrote Sateh Noureddine, a columnist for the Lebanese Arab nationalist newspaper As Safir. “It is understood that domestically Bush, Olmert and Abbas have many problems and cannot lead the way into any major breakthroughs.”

American ally Saudi Arabia and other nations suggested they would abandon the peace process started at Annapolis if the U.S. didn’t pressure Israel to make concessions that include allowing the return of Palestinian refugees, freezing Israeli settlements and resolution of the future of Jerusalem. Damascus said the talks must be broadened to reach settlements on related matters such as the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

“Despite the centrality and importance of the Palestinian cause, focusing on part of the problem and disregarding the other elements of peace would be wrong. In fact, it could be disastrous for peace itself,” wrote Issam Dari in Syria’s Tishreen newspaper. “Peace that is not comprehensive and does not include all the other tracks will be a deal that may disappear and evaporate with the first breeze.”

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi and special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut and Noha El-Hennawy in The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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