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Arab Leaders Plan Response to Israel's West Bank Project

By John Lancaster
The Washington Post
CAIRO, Egypt

In an atmosphere of frustration and mounting despair, Arab states scrambled Thursday to organize a diplomatic response to Israel's construction of a vast housing development for Jews in traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, which they say has brought the Middle East to the brink of catastrophe.

Most of the activity took place here at the palace of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, who met with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Chaara before sitting down to dinner Thursday evening with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76, also paid a visit to Cairo in an apparent effort to forestall unwelcome diplomatic initiatives on the part of Israel's Arab negotiating partners.

The diplomatic thrust and parry underscored the mood of crisis that has gripped Egypt and other moderate Arab states since bulldozers this week began clearing land for 6,500 Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, a housing project that Arabs say will solidify Jewish control over territory that rightfully belongs to the Palestinians.

The normally low-key Mubarak warned Wednesday that the peace process is at its lowest ebb in two decades and he predicted a "new era of violence" if Netanyahu does not cancel the construction on a hilltop known to Arabs as Jabal Abu Gheneim and to Israelis as Har Homa.

Mubarak's foreign minister, Amr Moussa, sounded a similar theme Thursday, telling reporters in a statement aimed at Israel, "Don't underestimate Arab intelligence and don't play games with us."

He added, "We cannot be deceived with any shining and sugar-coated promises the weight of which we know."

It remains to be seen whether the Arab states will match their tough words with action. Notwithstanding the depth of public anger toward Israel, and Netanyahu in particular, Arab leaders have limited room to maneuver in the face of Israel's overwhelming military superiority. That has left them with little recourse but to threaten a freeze on normalization of relations with Israel, a card that Egypt and others have so far been reluctant to play.

"It's not that the governments don't have options, but they are all committed to the peace process, so whatever they do will be in that framework," said a senior Arab diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "No one's talking about military action against the Israelis, not because it's not possible but because it's not in the mind-set of the Arab countries, so they are limited by that."

At the same time, Mubarak in particular is acutely sensitive to public opinion. Western diplomats do not rule out the possibility that Egypt could respond with tough measures, up to and including the downgrading of diplomatic relations with Israel or even closing its border with the Jewish state.

"I can tell you for sure, the Arab response will be tangible, and I can tell you for sure the direction we are going will have extremely negative implications for the peace process, and these are created by the Israeli actions," the Arab diplomat said.

"There's no joy in thinking of measures against Israel," the diplomat said. But he added, "What can you do? We are trying to show him there are red lines."

Meeting here last June a few weeks after Netanyahu's election, leaders of the Arab states threatened to freeze normalization if Israel did not abide by the principle of exchanging captured land for peace commitments that had guided negotiations with Netanyahu's Labor Party predecessors.

But Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein, in particular, urged their fellow Arabs to give Netanyahu a chance. They have since described a series of disappointments culminating in Netanyahu's decision to go ahead with the East Jerusalem housing project.

The issue is especially sensitive because it bears on the future of Jerusalem, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews and is claimed by both sides as their natural capital. Palestinians assert - with backing from the international community - that the future of Jerusalem should not be decided until "final status" talks called for in the peace accord signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993.

In response to the Arab reaction, Netanyahu has proposed a new approach to the peace process that would involve sitting down now to negotiate all the outstanding issues, including Jerusalem, rather than carrying out further West Bank withdrawals of Israeli forces in stages as was agreed in the 1993 accord.