Monday, July 24, 2006

America's Arab Allies Start Changing Their Tune

Eli Lake, The New York Sun:
America's closest Arab allies are now publicly sharpening their criticism of Israel's campaign against Hezbollah and muting their criticism of the Iranian-armed militia.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister delivered a letter from King Abdullah to President Bush yesterday saying the kingdom did not think Hezbollah should be disarmed before implementing a cease-fire, and a prisoner exchange should begin. In remarks to the Arab press last week, Saud al-Faisal said he was in contact with the regime in Iran and did not view its influence in Lebanon as negative. READ MORE

He told Agence France-Presse yesterday, "I found the president very conscious of the destruction and the bloodshed the Lebanese are suffering." He added that the president is anxious "to see the cessation of hostilities."

Meanwhile, both the Egyptian and Jordanian leaders are now being quoted as calling for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, a position at odds with America's view that any solution to the conflict should end in the disarming of Hezbollah, a mission the Israelis say they are trying to accomplish on the battlefield.

A statement issued from the royal court in Amman described a meeting between King Abdullah and European ambassadors as part of "the king's continuous efforts to muster international backing for an immediate cease-fire as the sole way for defusing the crisis."

The shift in the public statements of the Arab regimes closest to America reflect in part the growing disgust of the Arab street with the barrage of images from Israel's bombardment of Lebanon. Al-Jazeera in particular has focused on the new war's human toll, broadcasting gruesome pictures of children mutilated by ordnance, grieving mothers, and neighborhoods and villages in rubble.

Lebanese civilian casualties, in part due to Hezbollah's use of civilians as shields, have topped 300, according to major wire services. But the dead have yet to be counted in southern Lebanon, where some of the fighting and bombing have been the harshest.

An expert on the Levant at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Tony Badran, said, "I think the longer the Israeli offensive goes on, the harder the Arab regimes are going to be calling for an immediate cessation of fire. The question remains what exactly they are saying behind the scenes."

Behind the scenes for now there appears to be general consensus among the Arab nations and the Europeans that any cease-fire arrangement will not be coordinated for at least a week, giving the Israelis time to finish what they hope will be a decisive blow to Hezbollah. Secretary of State Rice will be touring the Middle East and Europe this week to explore a possible cease-fire.

Mr.Badran said he thought there was a lot of wiggle room in the Saudi foreign minister's remarks. "At one point he said the details are going to be worked out before the cease-fire happens. They are going to continue with this line, but really this is the United States position. He gave him an Arab cover when he said that Bush really wants a cease fire. The French are also doing the same sort of thing, publicly calling for cease-fire, but letting the details work out over time."

The president's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said yesterday that one possibility for an international force for southern Lebanon would be from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the military alliance created to stand up to the Soviet bloc.

One factor, however, that could tip support from Arab leaders however is the division among Sunni Islamists on the latest Arab-Israeli war. As the Sun reported last week, senior Wahhabi sheiks from the Gulf have already issued religious edicts urging Muslims not to pray for, support or join Hezbollah.

Over the weekend the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood published a response to the fatwa in which they quoted the organization's chairman, Ibrahim el-Masry, saying, "All political forces in Lebanon today back Hezbollah and they unanimously agreed to close ranks and stand up against the Israeli aggression which targets Lebanon indiscriminately." Mr. el-Masry added that he was "shocked" when he read the fatwa. "I believe that those who issued this fatwa lack sufficient information on the nature of Hezbollah and the nature of the Arab- Israeli conflict."