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Arab leaders measured in response to crisis

CAIRO, Egypt – Arab leaders meeting here Saturday condemned Israel’s bombing campaign in Lebanon as the death knell for any hope of negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But they stopped short of supporting the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, which triggered the latest round of violence by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers last week.

Arab governments are hamstrung over what to tell their citizens, who are incensed by four days of Israeli land, sea and air attacks on a fellow Arab nation that now threaten to engulf the entire region.

Responding too timidly could erode the Arab governments’ legitimacy, but reacting more boldly could be interpreted as tacit approval of Hezbollah, which has ties to the Islamist groups that threaten their own autocratic regimes, monarchies and start-up democracies.

“They condemn Israel, but at the same time they have their own problems with the Islamist movements and don’t support them,” said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islam at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “They’re confused.”

The Bush administration has hailed elections in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories as the harbingers of a democratic tide in the Middle East. But Sunni and Shiite Muslim Islamist parties have been the biggest winners in all three places, emerging as the most credible alternative to the region’s U.S.-backed regimes, which are widely considered corrupt, stagnant and ineffectual.

Hezbollah has members in the Lebanese cabinet and parliament; Hamas won control of the Palestinian government in January; and the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest opposition force in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and several other predominantly Sunni nations. In Iraq, Shiite political parties with ties to Iran’s Islamic Republic emerged strongest from December’s parliamentary elections.

Israel’s incursion into Lebanon has highlighted the gap between Arab government policies and public sentiment. While state-backed newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt criticized Hezbollah’s operation as a “miscalculation,” independent and opposition papers across the region reflected support for militants and printed graphic photos of the civilian victims of Israel’s air strikes.

Similar divisions surfaced Saturday at the Arab League, said several representatives who took part in talks there but asked not to be named because the discussions are supposed to remain confidential.

They said officials split over how to address the crisis. Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria showed strong support for Hezbollah. American-allied nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf states consider the group responsible for much of the violence. Countries such as Morocco, Sudan, Libya and Oman didn’t blame Hezbollah, but urged it to work more closely with the Lebanese government.