US jeopardizing relations with Muslim world
By Shyam Bhatia

LONDON: Masked Palestinians have been shinning up the flag poles in Bethlehem's Manger Square to retrieve the American flags and bunting left over from President Clinton's visit. The betting is on who can desecrate the most flags in the shortest possible time.

Burning American, British and Israeli flags is the latest sport of the Palestinian and Arab street which only a fortnight ago cheered Clinton as the founder "of the independent Palestinian state". Never before has an American president attracted such adulation among the Arabs. The speed with which his support has melted away has been just as astonishing.

Although official reactions are deliberately muted, Yasser Arafat has given the green light to preachers in the mosques to condemn the US.

At last Friday's prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque tens of thousands of Muslims heard the Palestinian mufti, Sheikh Ikirmah Sabri, denounce the latest attacks on Iraq.

"The Muslims must close ranks to confront this new conspiracy, this new aggression against the people of Iraq," Sabri said in his sermon on the eve of Ramazan. "The US, which is now the only superpower, is trying to enforce its will on the Muslims by killing innocent children and women." He also attacked Arab leaders for their impotence in resisting the aggression.

The Palestinians, who have the most to lose from alienating the US, are not the only ones to denounce Clinton's "flagrant aggression against the innocent Iraqi people".

Anti-US demonstrators in Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Damascus and Tripoli have returned to a familiar theme: the US is the enemy of all Arabs and Muslims, second only to Israel.

Arab commentators and cartoonists say that Clinton's only motive was to save his presidency from the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In Beirut the news magazine Al Kifah Al Arabi on Saturday printed a cartoon of Clinton as a dog throwing missiles on the heads of Arab leaders. In Tehran the daily newspaper Jomhuri Islami condemned Clinton as a "morally corrupt person who allows himself to destroy a country to cover up his sexual corruption".

"This new aggression should have been named Desert Monica and not Desert Fox," commented Al Hayat Al Jadida, the official newspaper of Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

A cartoon in another Palestinian newspaper depicts Clinton half undressed as he fires missiles at Baghdad. Palestinian officials say they feel betrayed by a man to whom they gave a hero's welcome only 48 hours before he authorized military strikes against a country that has always supported the Palestinian cause.

"He has placed us in a difficult situation with our Arab brothers", says one official who would not be named. "His historic visit to Palestine has been so overshadowed by scandal that we wonder if it was worth his coming here." Inside the walled city of Al Quds and in Palestinian markets throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Muslim shopkeepers have been demonstrating their solidarity with Iraq by playing taped jingles praising Saddam.

The Iraqi strategy to win more Arab sympathy is to paint the latest attacks as a joint US-Israeli conspiracy against the Muslim world. Both Saddam and his deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, spoke on Friday of the "Zionist" element in the Gulf confrontation. Aziz described both Clinton and Tony Blair as "Zionists" surrounded by "Zionist" cliques.

The Iraqis have also highlighted the timing of the air strikes on the eve of Ramazan, which officials in Baghdad say have desecrated the holy month sacred to all Muslims. "Corrupted Clinton and his toy boy, Tony Blair, have committed an aggression while Arabs and Muslims are welcoming the holy month of Ramazan," said a spokesman for Iraq's ministry of culture and information. On Saturday, Clinton responded by telling Muslims he respected their religious beliefs, and described the attacks on Iraq as being in the best interests of Islam and the Iraqi people.

Pro-Western Arab governments, which fear mass protests could undermine their stability, have paid lip service to their constituents by issuing guarded statements of regret over the air attacks. On Friday, Saudi Arabia said it was "concerned" by the violence in the Gulf and called for a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

In Cairo, where pro-Saddam demonstrations have been taking place every day since the launch of Operation Desert Fox, Egyptian police on Friday broke up protests.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other moderate Muslim leaders are concerned that any escalation in the Gulf will destroy the Middle East peace process in which Clinton has invested so much personal prestige. The future of the peace process is itself uncertain now that the Israeli government has frozen the implementation of the Wye River land for peace agreement.

In Israel the talk now is of early elections rather than peace with the Palestinians. As Binyamin Netanyahu's government has lost the confidence of the majority of Knesset members, his only remaining option is an early election.

His preferred time-scale is to go to the polls in April so he can turn the elections into a referendum on Arafat's plan to declare an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza next May. Now that both Clinton and Netanyahu are obliged to focus their attention on the issue of their personal political survival, the Israeli-Arab dispute will inevitably be consigned to the back burner.

Lack of progress in the peace process has in the past resulted in the flare-up of violence. The Palestinians are already threatening a new intifada, or uprising, to force Israel to implement the land for peace agreement. This time the beleaguered Clinton will not have the time to intervene.

As tensions mount with the Palestinians, Israel is having to come to terms with deteriorating relations with the two Arab neighbours with which it has peace treaties. Last Thursday the Jordanians closed their land border to Israeli visitors and in Cairo security around the Israeli embassy has been tightened.

The Middle East anticipates a "hot winter", regardless of Desert Fox. "We have foxes in the Middle East", Arafat's chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said recently. "What we all need and lack is peace."

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The Middle East anticipates a "hot winter", regardless of Desert Fox. "We have foxes in the Middle East", Arafat's chief negotiator, Saeb Erakat, said recently. "What we all need and lack is peace."

Main Page