Divided Arab League Calls For Halt To Gaza Strikes

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Arab foreign ministers met Wednesday in Cairo to discuss the crisis in Gaza as the Israeli military operation there, as well as Palestinian rocket fire into Israel, continued for a fifth day.

The Arab ministers urged the United Nations to step in to halt the Israeli bombardment and called for a unified Palestinian government. But as often happens at Arab League meetings, while the rhetoric was strong, the unity of purpose was scarce.

Secretary-General Amr Moussa condemned the Israeli bombing of Gaza, while Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said it never would have happened had the Palestinians remained unified.

Diplomatic Effort

With the Arab League essentially kicking the crisis back to the U.N. Security Council, attention turned to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who is traveling in the region trying to find a way to restore the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. After meeting with Erdogan, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad released a statement saying both agreed it is "impossible" to talk about peace while Israel continues its attacks on Gaza.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a prerecorded year-end speech that denounced what he called the "criminal Israeli aggression" in Gaza. Rather than blaming Hamas for the violence as he did five days ago, Abbas is now inviting Hamas and other factions to join in a unity government. Abbas did not join the chorus of criticism against Egypt for its handling of the crisis.

"This is not the time to exchange blame, while our people, our cause, is under grave threat — under a massive massacre," Abbas says.

Egypt Criticized

Several Arab commentators noted the irony of Egypt playing host to the Arab League at a time when its reputation has plummeted around the Arab world. Cairo University analyst Mustafa Kamal Sayed says Egypt brought that upon itself through a string of diplomatic blunders, starting with what he called the "very naive" move of inviting the Israeli foreign minister to Cairo after the Israeli Cabinet had already approved the aerial assault on Gaza.

Sayed says that since then, Egypt has missed a number of opportunities to help the Palestinians by opening the Egypt-Gaza border, and to register its opposition by recalling its ambassador to Tel Aviv or by suspending natural gas exports to Israel. He doesn't think there will be a major political realignment in the Arab world as a result of this violence, but he says the short-term consequences could be dangerous enough.

"The gulf between Arab governments and their public opinion is going to widen, and the popularity of the Islamic movements is going to increase," Sayed says.

That is precisely what happened after Israel's war with the Shiite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon two years ago, and only recently were some of those strained relations beginning to heal.

Victim Of Politics

Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, chairman of the Arab Thought Forum, said bluntly that the inability to end the violence was largely due to politics, including inter-Arab disputes, an American administration in transition and domestic Israeli politics. The result, he said, is Israel plunging ahead with a policy that is intended to weaken Hamas, but appears to be having just the opposite effect.

"It is already backfiring, in terms of the coverage of what is clearly shooting fish in a barrel," Talal said. "This is not a sideshow intended only to play a major factor in Israeli politics in the coming elections.

"It's not a sideshow to promote Hamas' street cred with Islamists all over the world, as with Hezbollah. This is actually about the future of the stability of the region."

As 2008 winds down with no end in sight to the violence, several governments — including the emirate of Dubai, the capital of glitz and bling in the region, canceled official New Year's celebrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza.

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