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Mideast radicals fill space left by peace impasse Print E-mail

CAIRO — Iran's closest allies in the Middle East are seizing on a deadlock in U.S.-backed peace efforts to try to sway a frustrated Arab world to their side.

 

Radicals have escalated their rhetoric as hopes for progress on an Israeli-Palestinian deal have faded. The leaders of Syria and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah endorsed violence against Israel and attacked President Barack Obama's Mideast approach in recent days. Angry over the stalled peace process, even moderate Arab countries are considering withdrawing an Arab League plan that offers Israel recognition in exchange for the return of occupied land.

"It would be wrong to think that peace will come through negotiating. It will come through resistance," Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a speech Wednesday — a sharp shift in tone for a head of state who, just a year ago, was in indirect peace talks with neighboring Israel and who has tried to warm ties with the U.S.

Overall, the Mideast is backsliding toward name-calling and saber-rattling, and away from the goal of a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Obama ignited Arab hopes when he came to office with an offer of outreach to the Muslim world. In a dramatic gesture, he flew to Cairo in June to address the Muslim world, drawing praise for what was seen as a respectful speech sprinkled with Arabic phrases and quotes from the holy Quran.

But even at that moment of warmth, Obama's target audience made clear it needed more than just eloquent speeches. Arabs wanted action, and in particular efforts by the U.S. to pressure Israel to halt Jewish settlement in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Now, in Arab eyes, the U.S. has failed miserably to live up to those expectations.

Instead, U.S. attention internationally is focused on problems elsewhere: the war in Afghanistan and the al-Qaida presence in neighboring Pakistan.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has gone on the offensive, attacking Obama by claiming the U.S. president has gone even further in his military support for Israel than his predecessor, George W. Bush — who was reviled in much of the Arab world.

"What we see is absolute American commitment to Israeli interests, Israeli conditions, and Israeli security ... while disregarding the dignity or feelings of the Arab and Muslim people," Nasrallah told tens of thousands of supporters Wednesday night.

Iran might have been mildly tarnished in Arab eyes by its postelection crisis this summer, said U.S.-based Mideast analyst Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation. But with peace efforts stalled, the first time Iran uses its leverage in the Arab world to support another armed conflict against Israel, the election debacle will be quickly forgotten.

"What is attractive about Iran (to Arabs) is that they are rhetorically defiant of the U.S. and look to be actively supporting allies who are actually fighting Israel," Hanna said.

The Arab frustration with the United States has grown through a series of events in the last weeks. First, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered and dismayed Arab leaders by praising Israel for an "unprecedented" offer to curtail Jewish settlement. Clinton later tried to control the damage by saying the U.S. wanted more concessions from Israel, but her words left a lasting sting.

Then moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas vowed he would leave politics after the next Palestinian elections, frustrated with both the U.S. and Israel. Abbas may yet stay in power after Palestinian election officials recommended Thursday postponing the January presidential vote indefinitely.

But deep divisions between Abbas and the Islamic militant group Hamas that rules Gaza remain a major obstacle to any peace agreement.

Even in Egypt, the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, there are ample signs of public, as well as official, frustration. The journalists' union is investigating Hala Mustafa, a liberal-minded editor and ruling party member, over a meeting with Israel's ambassador to Egypt, and there is growing opposition to translating any Israeli books into Arabic.

Arab diplomats say for the last few weeks, moderate Arab governments have been considering the possibility of withdrawing their 2002 peace initiative that calls for Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied in the 1967 war in exchange of full recognition of the Jewish state. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

After a meeting Thursday of the Arab League's peace committee in Cairo, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani said an Arab summit next year would have to decide whether to keep the initiative on the table.

Longterm, there are other, worrying signs the Mideast is not moving in the direction the West would like.

World powers have not only failed to rein in Iran's nuclear program, but the country is increasing its stockpile of enriched uranium that could eventually be used to make a nuclear weapon.

Hezbollah has consolidated its power in Lebanon since its 2006 war with Israel and increased its arsenal. This week, the group and its allies secured 10 of the 30 seats in the Lebanese government, a formula that gives Hezbollah potential veto power in the government.

On the Israeli side, the country now has a more hard-line government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and polarizing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has said Israeli-Arab lawmakers who meet Palestinian militants should be executed and the president of Egypt could "go to hell."

Israel's government has refused to halt Jewish settlement, despite repeated U.S. and Palestinian demands.

Netanyahu warns that rising Iranian influence could threaten Mideast peace and has not ruled out a possible attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli daily Haaretz said Netanyahu told Obama this week that continued deadlock with the Palestinians would result only in a stronger Iran.

Associated Press reporter Salah Nasrawi contributed to this report from Cairo.

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