A critical mass of hope and fear

WAR AND PEACE issues in West Asia have never been in a greater state of confusion than at present. Three new cross-currents seem to have emerged in the context of the latest Arab League summit that concluded in Beirut on a note of mixed signals and in the light of Israel's attempt to subdue the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, who has been portrayed as the "enemy" of the Jewish state. Obviously, crystal-gazing will be of no avail in these emotion-laden circumstances. Nor is a reality check within easy grasp. First, the apparently positive initiative for a wider Arab-Israel peace settlement, which Saudi Arabia has unveiled at the Beirut summit, has been greeted with scepticism from not only the Jerusalem establishment but also some forces within the Arabian side of the equation. Second, the fundamental aspect of the overall West Asian crisis — the Israel-Palestinian enmity — is being aggravated in several ways. Worsening the existential feud is a clear pattern of overtly militarist responses by the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to the unmistakable acts of terrorism being perpetrated by a motley array of misguided Palestinian-Arab groups against the Israelis. One of the latest suicide-bombings, which was patently aimed at terrorising ordinary Jews, was timed for the Arab summit where Prince Abdullah spoke of a peace formula on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which is widely recognised as a key conscience-keeper of Islamic faith and Arab values. The third but not the least strand of cross-currents pertains to Iraq and its leader, Saddam Hussein. With Baghdad making an overture of amity towards Kuwait at the latest Beirut summit, the Arab bloc seems to be as much surprised as indeed pleased at this gesture from Mr. Hussein towards a country that he had invaded, only to be thrown out by a U.S.-led military coalition, just over a decade ago. While these issues involve the Arabs and the Israelis, the U.S. remains a powerful external force of consequence to their endemic confrontation.

The Bush administration is concerned about peace and political stability across the entire West Asian arc of Islamic countries and Israel. West Asia figures prominently in Washington's telescopic world view spanning assorted theatres of varying relevance to the Bush administration's ongoing "war on terror". It is in this sense that the U.S. is currently engaged in bringing about a truce between the Palestinians and Israel. The truce mission by Anthony Zinni of the U.S. is said to be aimed at enabling these two West Asian parties to implement the Mitchell Report, another American-backed initiative, on steps towards a final settlement of the Palestine question. Not surprisingly, Washington is encouraging Saudi Arabia to try its hand at peace making despite Israel's reservations about some key facets of Riyadh's negotiable proposals. As for Iraq, Washington will soon have to determine whether Baghdad's new acceptability quotient within the Arab fraternity might deter any contemplated American action against Mr. Hussein. A counter-view is that the Arab states may now leave Mr. Hussein to his own devices in facing the U.S.

The Saudi framework envisions the establishment of "normal relations" between Israel and each of the Arab states in the event of the Jewish state being agreeable to a few conditions. Topping the list of demands is that Israel should allow the creation of a full-fledged Palestinian state with Jerusalem (or, perhaps a part of it) as the capital. Some reports suggest that the other conditions are that Israel must vacate all the Arab territories it had conquered in the 1967 war and also address in a just manner the old issue of how best the Palestinians, displaced at the time of Israel's formation, could return. While Israel's initial objections to some of these ideas are known, its cause is hardly advanced by any militarist siege of Mr. Arafat himself.

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