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Arab allies skeptical of U.S. peace effort

Times Staff Writer

cairo -- The upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace conference resembles a dinner party with a less-than-inspiring menu and a bunch of well-tailored yet exasperated guests who, if they show up at all, doubt that anyone will go home happy.

Posturing and recrimination often characterize such negotiations, but Arab nations, including Washington’s closest allies, are criticizing the November conference as a miscalculated photo op by a Bush administration desperate to repair its image in the Middle East.

“This is not an effort to save the Palestinians, it’s an attempt to prop up the administration’s very low standing in the Arab world,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. “Saudi Arabia and other Washington allies will lose a lot of credibility if this is just to take part in an American show.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans a visit to the region this week aimed at persuading Arab countries to send at least ministry-level officials to the meeting in Annapolis, Md. But analysts and media in the Middle East complain that the U.S. has not done the diplomatic legwork needed to advance peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Preliminary talks between the two sides are at an impasse.

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“Everybody knows what’s at stake,” said Mohammed Sayed Said, an analyst with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “But the conference is very mushy. It is far from certain how outstanding issues such as the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli peace and other concerns like Palestinian refugees will be addressed.”

The summit comes as Washington’s allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have become less circumspect in criticizing U.S. policy, often doing so publicly. The Iraq war, growing Islamic extremism and the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian issue are regarded as U.S. failures whose effects will agitate the region long after Bush leaves office in 2009.

Riyadh, Cairo and Amman have tried, with limited success, to stitch together a unified regional voice to overcome what they see as Washington’s mistakes, which have become more pronounced against the specter of Iran’s growing influence.

On Saturday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged a boycott of the summit, saying that it only served to buttress Israel.

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“Any gathering held in the name of peace so far has been to the disadvantage of the Palestinian people,” Khamenei said. Khamenei is Iran’s highest political and spiritual authority.

The crucial question about the conference from the Arab perspective is how, if at all, the U.S. can spur Israel to advance the 1993 Oslo accords and move closer to a Palestinian state. The other issue is the internal strife among the Palestinians, whose allegiances are generally split between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party in the West Bank and the radical Islamic group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The violent break between the two this year, after a brief attempt at a unity government, reverberated across the region, lifting Hamas’ stature as a defiant alternative to parties and regimes considered by many Arabs as too close to Washington.

The popularity of Hamas has had consequences for Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both are trying to contain, through imprisonment and rewriting election laws, the influence of the radical Muslim Brotherhood parties in their nations. A peace conference that fails to give the moderate Abbas some sort of Palestinian victory would embolden the political opposition in Egypt and Jordan, where displaced Palestinians account for half the population.

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These countries partly blame the U.S. for their current standoffs with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, the Bush administration urged Middle East allies, long criticized for human rights abuses, to enact democratic reforms as a means to counter terrorism. In Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, a loosening of restrictions led to the Islamic organization’s members winning nearly 20% of the seats as independents in the parliament. This was not what the U.S. intended, and it resulted in Amman and Cairo cracking down on opposition groups and jailing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members.

“Being an American ally is already risky for all these moderate Arab countries,” said Randa Habib, a writer and political analyst in Jordan.

“The Jordanian regime is concerned that the Palestinian- Israeli conference will take place without preparation and there will be no substantive outcome,” Habib said. “This would only again strengthen the position of the Islamic extremists.”

She said the Arab capitals and Washington appear to be speaking to each other from parallel realities. Rice is shuttling through the region to draw support for a meeting when many of those she is visiting would prefer to be taken off the list. In fact, Arab officials note, the date of the conference is still not known.

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“I think the regimes want to convince Rice, at least as things stand now, that this is not the right time for a peace conference,” Habib said. “The whole conference looks very mysterious and suspicious, and that’s not good in a part of the world that thrives on conspiracy theories.”

The meeting is unlikely to address wider regional tensions, such as Syria’s demand that Israel return the Golan Heights, which it captured in the 1967 Middle East War. The U.S. has invited Syria, but President Bashar Assad has said he won’t attend unless the Golan Heights is on the agenda. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the conference’s focus.

This limited agenda would increase the chances that Syria and its ally Iran might try to inflame the region by creating a regional conflict, such as upsetting the fragile peace in faction- ridden Lebanon.

“Iran will try to sabotage the conference with its influence in Syria and maybe Lebanon, but it can’t prevent it,” said Alani, the Dubai-based analyst. He said Saudi Arabia would try to counter such a move, because though Riyadh is wary of the conference, it doesn’t want to see even a poorly planned U.S. effort fail.

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“The Saudis are the key,” Alani said. “Who they send to the conference will reflect their trust and belief in Washington’s abilities. There’s a vacuum of power in the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia is rising to fill it. The Americans have to understand this. The Saudis want some clear outcome for the conference or it’s not worth their participation.”

But whom the Arab world will send has become an intriguing bit of gamesmanship.

“The chemistry between Bush and Mubarak has always been bad,” Said said. “Mubarak won’t go to the conference. It’ll probably be a [lower-level] official, or possibly the foreign minister. No one really wants to take responsibility for entirely losing President Bush or to send a negative signal about the peace process.”

The strained relationship was underscored last month when Washington criticized Egypt for jailing editors and closing a human rights group. Cairo and Washington have bickered for years over democratic reforms in Egypt, but the timing and tone of the Bush administration’s rebuke drew mocking criticism here.

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“It is not for the sake of the Egyptian press or journalists that the White House issued that statement with fake ‘concern’ about press freedom in Egypt,” said an editorial in the state-owned Rosa al-Yousef newspaper. “Washington uses those statements of concern as scarecrows whenever it needs something impossible from Egypt. . . .

“The U.S. wants President Mubarak to announce his endorsement of the peace conference in advance . . . even if it has no outcome.”

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Tehran contributed to this report.


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