Meeting at the sumptuous Palais Royal in Casablanca, Morocco, last week, kings and presidents, sultans and emirs—all leaders of the 22-member Arab League—went out of their way to make a show of unity. The meeting in Morocco was in part designed to welcome Egypt—expelled from the league 10 years ago for making peace with Israel—back into the fold. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at one point even shared a crowded limousine with a longtime political foe, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, on their way to the palace. And the league—with some objections from Gadhafi and Syria’s President Hafez Assad—supported a proposal by the Palestine Liberation Organization to negotiate directly with Israel for an independent Palestinian state. But on the most contentious issue facing the Arab world—the bloody civil war devastating Lebanon—the league remained divided. Said a foreign minister whose country had pressed for Arab peacekeeping forces in Lebanon: “Our hopes were much higher than this.”
Even as Arab leaders argued in Casablanca, Israel and its chief patron, the United States, engaged in their own verbal battle. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has called for
the election of Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories who would then negotiate for only limited self-rule. In visits to London and Madrid last week, Shamir received lukewarm support for his proposal. But he was clearly distressed by the response from Washington. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, speaking to the pro-Israeli American Israel Public Affairs Committee on May 22, bluntly called on Israel to abandon its dream of keeping the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel should “forswear annexation,” Baker said, and “reach out to the Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.” Athough he did not depart from established American policy—he also criticized Palestinian violence—Baker created a stir among Israeli officials and many American Jews with the harsh tone of his message. Shamir dismissed Baker’s comments as “useless.”
In Washington, President George Bush offered a measure of reassurance, stating that Shamir’s plan “gives us something to work with, and we are now looking for a constructive Aab response.” But analysts noted that Bush was not as inclined as his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, to offer automatic support for Israeli policies. “Israel has been spoiled by Reagan,” said Robert Neumann, senior adviser at the
Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Now there is going to be a little distance between Israel and the United States.” In Jerusalem, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, told Maclean’s: “The idea that Israel will divest itself of all, or most, of this territory and still be able to defend itself is a pipe dream. It will lead not to peace but to certain war.”
In Casablanca, the Aab League formally—and fiercely—rejected Shamir’s proposal. Instead, Aafat tried to win the league’s blessing for his own peace plan, which involves free elections under international— not Israeli—supervision. He also sought backing for the Palestine National Council’s decision last November to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist alongside an independent Palestine. Syria and Libya initially argued against recognition of the Israeli state. But in the final communiqué, the full Aab League gave a ringing endorsement to Aafat’s initiative.
The league’s attempts to find a solution to the 14-year civil war in Lebanon, where two rival governments have existed since last September, were much less successful. More than 360 people have died in the past two months as fierce artillery battles between Moslem militias—backed by 40,000 Syrian troops—and Christian forces allied with Syria’s archenemy, Iraq, have devastated Beirut. A majority of the 21 league members present—Lebanon’s seat was empty—appeared to back a proposal by Jordan’s King Hussein to replace Syrian and other foreign troops in Lebanon with an Aab peacekeeping force. But Syria refused, and the league was forced to extend its summit—originally scheduled to close on May 24—an extra two days. In the end, the league could agree only that it would appoint a three-man committee under Morocco’s King Hassan to follow up on the Lebanese crisis. The Casablanca stalemate renewed concerns in Beirut that a tenuous May 11 ceasefire arranged by the Aab League would soon break down.
In both the Palestinian and Lebanese decisions by the league leaders, Egypt played a moderating role. Mubarak offered no apologies for Egypt’s peace with Israel in 1979 and he made no apparent concessions to Syria and Libya—which vehemently opposed his nation’s return to the league. In fact, Mubarak immediately took a leadership role, calling on other Aab countries to stop “wasting opportunities and time” to bring peace to the Middle East. Athough the Casablanca meeting produced only limited progress, Egypt’s reconciliation with its Aab neighbors at least offered hope that moderate forces, ultimately, may prevail.
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