November 14, 1997 in Nation/World

Fraying Arab-Israeli Relations Embolden Iraq

John Donnelly Knight-Ridder
 

The glory days are over.

In the Middle East, the United States’ favored status has fallen dramatically in the last year, essentially breaking up the anti-Iraq coalition that so carefully was built for the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Among the many powerful forces that have transformed the Americans’ image from superpower to super-bully is the single overriding regional black mark: the rapid dissolution of the Middle East peace process.

Without the peace process, the region becomes edgy. When that happens, any change in the status quo is apt to spark widespread anger or worse.

Arab analysts believe the recent fallout from the moribund peace process has not only crippled the Middle East and North Africa economic conference in Qatar, which begins Sunday, but also prompted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to take his stand two weeks ago against U.S. weapons inspectors.

The reasoning: Saddam could play to pan-Arab nationalism at a time when Americans are widely unpopular in Arab countries because of their perceived pro-Israel bias. And when he does that, Saddam has a chance at creating further dissension between the United States and Arabs.

American diplomats, both in the United Nations and around the Arab world, are working hard to head off further damage. As an example, a senior Clinton administration official recently visited Doha, the capital of Qatar, and suggested the cancellation of the economic conference, a U.S. diplomat in the region told the Miami Herald. The conference, the fourth such annual meeting, originated with high hopes of integrating Israel into the Arab world.

The conference will start as planned Sunday but with only a few Arab countries, including Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen, participating. Staying away are two regional heavyweights, both American allies: most shockingly, Egypt, which receives $2 billion annually in U.S. assistance and was penned in as a sure bet to come, and Saudi Arabia, home to 120 U.S. Air Force fighters and other aircraft, and about 6,000 American combat and support personnel.

Arab countries that go also assume a risk - a backlash of public discontent. Associating with Israel is not a popular move, to say the least. Even in pro-American Kuwait, a legislator accused the conference delegation of being “traitors.”

“The United States is in quite an uncomfortable situation in this part of the world,” said a Western diplomat based in Amman. “Probably all of it is attributable to the Israeli government.”

In 17 months, Netanyahu’s coalition government has made only one advance in the process - signing the Hebron agreement - while taking many steps that have set back the talks, most notably adding to Jewish settlements on land that Palestinians want as part of a future state.

Netanyahu’s closest ally in the Arab world, King Hussein of Jordan, became so enraged by an Israeli attempt in Amman to assassinate a political operative of the militant Islamic group Hamas that he told the Washington Post his trust in Netanyahu has almost evaporated.

Notably, King Hussein also found fault with the United States for not pushing Israel to abandon building in settlements in the West Bank.

“The United States,” he said in the interview, ” … should move from being a messenger to being actively involved.”

If the United States doesn’t act, he warned, the region is headed for an “explosion.”

“Arabs now feel like they are being hounded, besieged, targeted,” said Kamal Abu Jaber, head of the Institute of Diplomacy in Amman. “On a popular level, there is such a feeling of frustration and that is not conducive to giving the peace process more time.”


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