CAIRO (Reuters) – Rebuffed by the United Nations and the United States, impotent against militant Islamist groups fighting Israel, and often unpopular at home, Arab governments have made a joint appeal for urgent assistance.
At a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, they declared Middle East peacemaking finally dead, only to implore the U.N. Security Council to revive it immediately.
As war raged between Israel and the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hizbollah, an Arab minister said fighting was out of the question and diplomacy was the only option.
“I don’t believe that anyone could expect that the Arab states will now enter a war or are ready to go into a war,” Mohammed Hussein al-Shaali, minister of state from the United Arab Emirates, told a news conference.
“The alternative is political and diplomatic action and that is what we are doing,” he added.
But, cowed by popular sympathy for Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Islamist group Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the ministers hardly dared criticize their Islamist rivals for provoking the military might of Israel.
Hamas and Hizbollah, despite their electoral successes, have not yet found a place in delegations to Arab League meetings.
The secular Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the old Palestine Liberation Organization have maintained their grip on Palestinian foreign policy, despite the defeat of Fatah in January elections.
The furthest the ministers went was to say that all parties should coordinate their actions toward Israel because some acts undermine regional stability and do not serve Arab interests.
Saudi Arabia has come closest to overt criticism of Hizbollah with talk about “ill-considered adventures.” In private, Egypt and Jordan share the Saudi view, diplomats say.
The trigger for the latest round of fighting was a cross-border operation by Hizbollah to capture Israeli soldiers for exchange with some of the thousands of Arab prisoners held by Israel, some of them jailed for decades without trial.
For domestic political reasons, the government of Lebanon is powerless to control Hizbollah operations in south Lebanon, just as President Mahmoud Abbas cannot act against Hamas, which runs the Palestinian cabinet, without provoking civil war.
The gap between the Islamist fighting forces and the peace-seeking governments is reminiscent of the conflicts in the late 1960s and early 1970s between Palestinian guerrilla groups and their hosts, who feared being dragged into war.
The Palestinian fighters came close to toppling the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan in 1970, then moved on to south Lebanon, where they established a state within a state until the Israeli invasion of 1982.
While Hamas and Hizbollah fight Israel, most Arab governments have sought to enlist the support of the United Nations, the United States and the European Union to impose their vision of a peace settlement based on 1967 borders.
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said on Saturday they had run out of patience with fruitless Middle East diplomacy and with the United States, which has used its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Israel from censure.
“All the mechanisms and proposals and committees … were either deceptions or sedatives or incompatible with the peace process. The peace process has been handed over to Israeli diplomacy as a gift to do what it wants with it,” he said.
Moussa called on the U.N. Security Council to stop the escalating violence in the region and urged it “to study the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its aspects because of the failure of all efforts related to the peace process.”
In practice the Arab governments cannot and will not turn away international mediators, even from the United States, Arab diplomats said on Sunday.
“We are not closing the door or going to war or anything of the sort. But it’s clear that the peace process is completely dead and something has to be done,” one Arab diplomat said.
“Absolutely we will talk with them (mediators) but we are saying ‘Enough is enough’. They (the old mechanisms) didn’t deliver, we kept having meeting after meeting after meeting and nothing happened,” said Hesham Youssef, an aide to Moussa.