It would be wrong to imagine the Arab League summit meeting in Beirut is degenerating into farce, for the organization has a long history of not rising out of this condition. Syria and Saudi Arabia are seeking unanimous backing for opposite resolutions. A final communiqué was, as ever, drafted before any discussion began, which had already internalized the schizophrenia.
We now have the official Saudi Arabian "peace proposal" from the very lips of Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. From an Israeli view, it would be entirely unworkable, for apart from such minor affronts to dignity as being forced to concede that Israel is entirely responsible for half a century of "violence and oppression," there is the sticking point of having to permanently import some millions of Palestinian stateless. These are the refugees, and all of their descendants, from the unsuccessful war the Arabs launched, to strangle Israel in its cradle in 1948. These poor people have been kept in isolation in the surrounding Arab countries, refused citizenship, and supported chiefly at the expense of the United Nations, while they multiplied through the years. They are used as the jet fuel in expressions of Arab anger.
But simultaneously, Syria's President, Bashir Assad -- the man who could not prevent himself from uttering a frothing anti-Semitic diatribe even when standing beside the Pope -- is pressing all delegates to sign a triumphant endorsement of Yasser Arafat's Intifada, with implicit congratulations for the achievements of his suicide-bombers, that exhorts all Muslim nations to help him kill more.
In the end, Mr. Arafat himself decided to stay away. For even though the U.S. Vice-President, Dick Cheney, had twisted Ariel Sharon's arm to the point of letting him go to Beirut, he couldn't be sure Mr. Sharon would let him return to Ramallah afterwards. He sent a satellite address, which as of this writing is still impounded by the Lebanese conference organizers, on the instruction of their Syrian masters. The problem seems to be that Mr. Arafat's remarks, later shown on Al Jazeera TV from Qatar, were actually too moderate for the Syrians, and the Iranian sponsors behind both he and them. While it included some blood-curdling rhetoric, Mr. Arafat was being careful not to dissociate from that Saudi peace initiative. He, if not the "axis of evil" behind him, recognizes the use of such a giant red herring in beating concessions out of Israel, via the international pressure to which only Israel has to respond.
The Palestinian delegation has -- in response to the Syrian interference, but blaming the hapless Lebanese officials -- already walked out in high dudgeon, which they usually do at least once in any Arab League meeting. Indeed, displays of petulance make it hard to keep a quorum.
Meanwhile, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, also decided to stay away. Through crossed signals with his foreign minister, he failed to earn sulking rights, for by the time the Egyptians realized what they had to sulk about (Israel's tardiness in obeying the U.S. instruction to let Mr. Arafat fly), they had already put out the standard excuse about unspecified "urgent domestic business." Mr. Mubarak is among the most cautious of the world's presidents-for-life. His real reason for not attending is because he could not see the whole script in advance. For Mr. Mubarak never goes anywhere if something unpredictable might happen. If he is sulking at all, it is because the Saudis have stolen his thunder. Egypt is supposed to be the official face of Arab moderation.
"You hold him while we punch him." This is the message about Israel to the Bush administration that is actually being broadcast from Beirut. The Syrian and Saudi formulations thus work in tandem. It isn't planned that way: Not even the Arabs are that obvious when it comes to framing a diplomatic message. The truth just happens to emerge spontaneously from the dialectical process.
The underlying reality is a tectonic movement shaking the whole Middle East. Syria, its client Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, are increasingly conspiring to shift men and materiel to Israel's northern front, and to supply powerful weaponry by all possible means to the Palestinian Intifada. This could be taken as their response to President Bush's threat of instituting "regime changes" in Baghdad and elsewhere -- a tactical diversion to a "second front." But it is more than that: For as Western intelligence has now begun to grasp, the build-up began well before 9/11, to say nothing of Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" speech. It is part and parcel of a longer term civilizational descent into madness.
The region's other regimes are just scared. The usual farce is tinged with tragedy. They see the U.S. train coming one way, the Islamist in the other, and they are tied to the track in the middle. They wonder which will hit them first.
©2002 - Ottawa Citizen