The summits are coming hard and fast—the G8 summit in Évian, France, which formally starts Monday; the Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, summit between President George W. Bush and Arab leaders Tuesday; and the Aqaba, Jordan, summit between Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday. Middle East papers reported on how the meetings are expected to affect the Palestinian-Israeli “road map” as Bush makes his first foray into the region.
Several papers carried a front-page photograph of Bush in Évian holding hands with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, preferring it to the more notable snapshot of the day: Bush’s stiff handshake with French President Jacques Chirac—the first between the two since they parted ways over Iraq. Both Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took advantage of their presence in France to prepare for Sharm el-Sheikh, but also, in the Saudis’ case, to circulate a document explaining how they intend to curb Islamist terrorism. (The Saudis said they have increased supervision over financial transfers, now allow only banks to transfer funds, have compelled charitable organizations—many of which are said to sponsor Islamist groups—to be licensed, and have taken steps to improve oversight over such organizations and make them more transparent.) In such venues, public statements are usually boilerplate, and the London-based Al-Hayat broke no new ground when it quoted Egypt’s foreign minister saying: “Bush’s visit and the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting are indications of the American president’s concern for the ‘road map.’ ” However, the statement disguised Arab fears that Bush will have a short attention span for regional diplomacy. Just as intriguing is what the Israelis and Palestinians will bring to Aqaba. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Sharon will announce the removal of 10 “flagrantly illegal” settlements out of a total of 100 illegal outposts. This may not be much, but the Palestinians were not anticipating major moves by Wednesday. In an interview published Sunday, Yasser Arafat told Al-Hayat that Abbas is still trying to persuade Hamas to accept a cease-fire with Israel and that one is “possible” next week. Other Palestinian officials were also optimistic about a cease-fire but dismissed Israeli press reports that it would happen within the next few days.
With all eyes on the “road map,” little attention has been paid to an Arab country stalled on its off ramp: Lebanon. Beirut’s English-language Daily Star quoted Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Birri saying the plan was “nothing but trouble” because it “means the resettlement of Palestinians in this country.” Lebanon’s concern is that it will be forced to permanently accept the estimated 200,000-300,000 refugees currently in the country. Officials have warned that this has been made more likely by the vagueness of the “road map” and Israel’s refusal to allow the return of refugees from the 1948 war (who make up the bulk of Lebanon’s Palestinians). Mistrust of the “road map” was particularly apparent in Hezbollah’s weekly newspaper Al-Intiqad. The party has called for continued Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation. That is why one columnist described Israel’s acceptance of the plan as “booby trapped,” noting, “In the coming phase, the main goal is to stop the resistance and take steps to restrict the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the political realm.”
As it clamored for Arab steadfastness against Israel and the West, Hezbollah must have balked at a front-page story in Monday’s Daily Star, reporting that Syria had signed two 25-year oil and gas exploration contracts with Oklahoma-based Devon Energy and its Texas-based affiliate Gulfsands Petroleum. The paper observed that though Syria is on a U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism, “senior company officials [said] they had not had any objections to the long-term deals from the U.S. administration.” So much for Arab anxieties about Washington’s unhealthy appetite for Arab oil.
Most Arabic papers reported Monday that the overseer of American reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Paul Bremer, had decided to abandon the idea holding a national conference to set up an interim Iraqi administration, preferring instead to simply appoint its members. Still, on Sunday Al-Hayat and the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat put the focus on family affairs, with both papers publishing stories on Saddam Hussein’s clan. Al-Hayat began a three-part series based on talks in Tikrit with Ilham Khairallah Talfah, Saddam Hussein’s sister-in-law and cousin, while Al-Sharq al-Awsat published statements by Saddam’s eldest daughter, Raghd, as conveyed by a cousin. The Al-Hayat stories were less important for their revelations than as windows into the regime’s secretive ways, illustrating how even family members were afraid of crossing Saddam, often on minor issues. In Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Raghd was quoted as saying, “The regime collapsed [because] of my father’s aides, who were only concerned with remaining at their posts and protecting their special interests.” Reportedly, Raghd, a younger sister, and their families are in a Baghdad apartment owned by a modest family. Her ambition is to seek exile in London, Cairo, Doha, or Abu Dhabi.