Tuesday, March 23, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Arab leaders will gather here next week for a critical look at the threats, prospects and frustrations facing the Arab world, which is at a low point in its relations with the West.

The Israeli helicopter missile strike in the Gaza Strip on Monday that killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the paralyzed founder of the Palestinian organization Hamas, virtually has eliminated the prospect of any conciliatory move by the 16th summit meeting of the 22-member League of Arab States, usually called the Arab League.

A clamor for revenge swept through the Palestinian territories and several Arab countries, and the upcoming summit can do little beyond approving resistance to Israel and eliminating the peace process from its agenda. At best, the leaders can examine Arab impotence in the face of the paralysis of the Middle East peace process, Israel’s defiance of the Arab world, questions arising from U.S. conduct in conquered Iraq and Western Europe’s growing hostility to Arab immigrants.

Tunisian reluctance

The Tunisian hosts, who consider themselves a significant and historical link between the Arab world and the West, are likely to be confirmed in this role. The league envisages several economic decisions and structural reforms, but the conclusions of the summit might be depressing from the Arab point of view, particularly regarding relations with the United States.

The summit’s Tunisian leadership will need considerable diplomatic skill to keep anti-American rhetoric to a minimum. To much of the Arab world, the United States represents unconditional support for Israel and an increasingly dominant — and virtually uncontrolled — military presence in their part of the world.

The summit comes six weeks after the Washington visit of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, host to the Arab heads of state ranging from traditional monarchs to modern-style presidents.

Aides described Mr. Ben Ali’s trip to Washington as “the watershed in Arab-American relations.” Some diplomats consider this assessment optimistic.

Senior officials said it was with considerable reluctance that Mr. Ben Ali agreed to host the summit in his colorful Mediterranean capital.

“He felt the $20 million spent on the summit could be better used elsewhere,” one official said.

However, the summit venue has confirmed Tunisia’s commitment to “the Arab cause.” Amid various trends and currents, some linking and some dividing the league’s members, Tunisia often acts as a moderate and “constructively neutral” mediator.

Most participants opted for Tunis — rather than the chaotic atmosphere of Cairo, the league’s headquarters. The organization of previous international meetings held in Tunis has been impressive. As one participant put it, “Being in Tunis is almost like being in Europe.”

An optimistic Tunisian official expressed hope that Mr. Ben Ali’s Washington contacts “might lay the groundwork for rearranging the pieces in the Arab world, so that order can replace chaos, peace can be given a chance and hostility can be transformed into friendship.”

Some observers doubt that the pragmatic Tunisian president expects to find an easy consensus in a probable atmosphere of frustration, internecine quarrels and increasing anti-Americanism.

What is reasonably certain, analysts say, is that Mr. Ben Ali will make sure that the summit ends on a positive note, rather than with recrimination or sweeping condemnation of Washington’s conduct toward the Arab world.

He feels that his state visit to the United States “assumed a significance well beyond a diplomatic and trade relationship” and that it placed Tunisia “in a unique position as a bridge between the world of Arab Islam and the West,” senior officials said.

Low expectations

The two-day summit, which formally begins Monday, will be preceded by preparatory meetings of Arab foreign, finance and economic ministers. One of its objectives is the creation of “a common economic strategy,” although given the diversity of the league’s members, such an outcome is doubtful.

Now, after contacts among the five North African countries of the Maghreb Union and the five European countries facing them geographically — the so called “five plus five” organized by Tunisia — the Arab League also hopes to expand its precarious relationship with Europe.

The heads of state, from the Gulf kings and princes whose thrones are balanced on billions of barrels of oil to the desert republic of Mauritania on the Atlantic, are expected to arrive in Tunis on Sunday.

An official Tunisian communique announcing the summit was laconic.

It simply said that Tunisia “has done everything to welcome the Arab summit,” citing its vast hotel resources and the experiences of other such meetings, including the summit of the Organization of Africa Unity in 1994 and December’s summit of the “five plus five.”

In a pre-summit statement, the Arab League’s secretary-general, Amr Moussa, said merely that the importance of the meeting was in the framework “of the changes affecting the region.”

Among these changes are the paralysis of the Arab-Israeli peace process and the sidelining of the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Israel’s plan to finish its $2 billion, 625-mile concrete and electrified fence around a skeletal Palestine, a perceived one-sided U.S. policy in favor of Israel, and Washington’s conduct in Iraq, which some Arabs call “the battle America lost.”

Anti-American sentiment

Several Arab leaders feel left out of Washington’s plans for Iraq and consider U.S. conduct in that country as arrogant and leading to disaster.

Mr. Ben Ali has been much more careful in his assessment. In an interview with The Washington Times, he called for “further involvement of the international community and the United Nations in managing the postwar period and in the reconstruction work.”

Of considerable concern at the summit will be the increasingly anti-American behavior of “the Arab street,” the feeling that President Bush has broken his promises and, according to one view, “instead of reaching out to the Arab world, has chosen tolerance of Israel and [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon.”

For some time, Tunisia has been alerting Western capitals to the danger of the growing effervescence of “the Arab street,” to some extent fueled by Arab cable-television channels such as Al Jazeera.

Chadli Klibi, a former secretary-general of the league, said “the greatest danger threatening peace is the tendency shown by the United States that force can impose laws and that it is capable of permanently governing international relations.”

Marc Lynch, a political scientist at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., said the Arabs see U.S. policy as “combining military interventions with a dismissal of local opposition, offset by occasional patronizing attempts to ‘get the American message out.’ The result has been to alienate the very people whose support the United States needs to succeed.”

Hichem Ben Yaiche, a Tunisian commentator, went further.

“In the minds of the Arab-Muslim masses, the United States is an egoist power serving strictly its own interests throughout the world,” he said.

Although critical of U.S. policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, many Arabs agree that “there is no congenital hatred of America” and that opposition to the United States is based strictly on “foreign-policy choices.”

Tunisian sources say one of Mr. Ben Ali’s tasks at the summit is to make sure that its conclusions are not perceived as attacks on the United States and that “the effervescence of the Arabs street” is not reflected in the league’s final communique.

The United States is not the only target of the Arab press, its statesmen and public opinion. The increasing European perception of Arabs as quintessential terrorists has led to the curbing of immigration laws in several countries.

Hedi Mhenni, a member of Tunisia’s ruling party, said many immigrants from Arab countries “are deprived of labor-union membership, permanently threatened by deportation and rejected by the local population.”

Troubled past

The Arab League was created on March 22, 1945, in Alexandria, Egypt, for “promoting economic, social, political and military cooperation,” to mediate disputes and to represent Arab states in some international organizations.

During its 59-year history, the league has faced several crises beyond its control. They include the abortive Franco-British expedition to seize from Egypt the nationalized Suez Canal in 1956, the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, several Israeli military thrusts into Lebanon, the rise of Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s, turmoil in Jordan and Amman’s expulsion of Palestinians from the kingdom, and two U.S.-led wars against Iraq.

It watched, powerless, a dozen internal Arab coups, Libya’s aggressive conduct in Chad, the 1963 frontier war between Algeria and Morocco, Morocco’s annexation of the formerly Spanish Western Sahara, and the Algerian military’s savage civil war against Islamic extremists.

In 1979, to protest the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, the league moved its headquarters to Tunis, where it remained for 11 years, returning to Cairo after various international moves to bring peace to the Middle East.

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