Reports of the ongoing military buildup around Iraq and of more deaths in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dominate the front pages of several Arab papers.
It is doubtful the London-based Al-Hayat, owned by the Saudi royal Prince Khaled bin Sultan was attempting humor in its headline, “27,000 New American Troops [to the Gulf], Prince Abdullah Believes War Unlikely.” Abdullah, the crown prince and effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, remarked at a Riyadh gathering, “We can see the fleets and the concentrations of troops in the region; however, God inspires me … to say there will be no war.” The crown prince hedged his celestial bets when he told the United Nations, “[T]he Arabs have one request: that they be given an opportunity to reach an understanding with Iraq to avert a war.”
For the influential Lebanese publisher Ghassan Tueini, writing in his Beirut paper An-Nahar, it is Abdullah’s “right” to deem war improbable, even if the Arabs don’t have much of a say on the issue. The Arab scene is “gloomy,” he asserts, and the only way to describe the Arab presence is as “an absence of presence … except as a ‘vocal phenomenon’ … echoed by ‘intellectual groups’ closed in upon themselves, turning in a vicious circle, asking: ‘Will there be war or no war?’ As if the Arabs were outsiders.”
Speaking of absences, missing from several leading regional papers was news of the article in Sunday’s Washington Post, which traced the surreptitious maturation of the Bush administration’s plan to invade Iraq. The president decided to confront Saddam soon after Sept. 11, though the plan was only revealed to the foreign policy bureaucracy later. The timing of a conflict may remain vague, but Hisham Melhem, writing from Washington in Beirut’s Al-Safir, offers a date: The war will happen in March or April at the latest, he writes, citing senior U.S. officials, regardless of whether U.N. inspectors fail to find weapons of mass destruction by Jan. 27, when they report to the Security Council. “The sources indicated that one of the excuses Washington will use … to accuse Iraq of non-cooperation with the inspection teams is its refusal to allow scientists to travel abroad to be questioned, without the presence of Iraqi officials.”
Melhem’s story and Crown Prince Abdullah’s reference to Arab efforts to avoid a war dovetail by hinting at a possible last-ditch stab at convincing Saddam to go into voluntary exile. There have been recent reports (notably in the Christian Science Monitor) of Saudi efforts to persuade the Iraqi leader to bow out. Melhem writes that Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal is a leading proponent of the idea, though his request for more time has provoked derision in the United States, where officials cackled, “Will Saddam join [former Ugandan dictator] Idi Amin in a Jeddah hotel?” Prince Saud actually wants Saddam to go to Mauritania, hardly making acceptance likelier.
Meanwhile, there was no letup in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ten Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza, while two Israelis were killed in separate attacks near the Egyptian border and in Afula Sunday. The Hamas movement also launched three Kassam rockets at the town of Sderot. Al-Hayat puts an electoral spin on Israeli actions by maintaining, “Sharon runs away from his scandals by mounting a major attack against [the Gaza town of] Khan Yunis,” where Israel employed some 80 tanks in what the paper describes as “the largest military attack since the reoccupation of the West Bank last March.”
Two editorials gauge the consequences of the ambient disarray in Israel as it nears Knesset elections later this month. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Daniel Bloch argues that the financial scandal surrounding Ariel Sharon means he will be ineffective if he again becomes prime minister. To save the party, Likud should replace Sharon with Benjamin Netanyahu. Ironically, Bloch considers Netanyahu amenable to a deal with the Palestinians, recalling, “It was Netanyahu who gave more territory to the Palestinians in actual terms and in future obligations than his successors.”
In London’s Financial Times, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat is equally concerned with territory, denouncing Israel’s “insatiable appetite for Palestinian land.” Erakat’s op-ed was penned to condemn the Sharon government’s refusal to allow Palestinians to attend a London conference on political and financial reform of the Palestinian Authority, which he describes as “one of the world’s pettiest political gestures.”
Erakat demands an end to Israeli settlement activity, which he sees as the only way to persuade Palestinians that their future can improve, and he reiterates a longstanding Palestinian demand for third-party monitors in Palestinian areas, concluding: “If reform is allowed to succeed, Israeli settlement activity ended, and third party monitors put in place, there will be a dramatic change in the perspective of both Palestinians and Israelis.”