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A struggle for Mideast middle way

Summit's decision yesterday not to cut ties with Israel dissatisfied ordinary Arabs.

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In 1967, the young nation of Israel - then just 19 - stunned the world by trouncing its Arab neighbors and seizing vast stretches of their territory.

Thirty-three years later, the Arab states still have very little idea what to do about the American-backed powerhouse in their midst.

This weekend's summit of 22 Arab League members, held in Cairo, put on display the paradox of the Arab view of Israel: The region's leaders agree that they don't like the Israelis, but their sense of unity wanes when they try to devise a common strategy for dealing with the Jewish state.

Even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's recent attempts to rally his brethren around the idea that Israel threatens Jerusalem's Muslim shrines seem not to have had much impact here.

"Arab unity does not exist," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "It keeps collapsing in the face of every major crisis."

The summit was flush with rhetorical condemnations of Israel, but little strategic coherence emerged from the first meeting of Arab heads of state in four years.

The absence of a unified, hard-line Arab strategy will probably be good for the restoration of the peace process, since it may keep the Israelis from hardening their own position. Even so, Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced yesterday that Israel would take a "timeout" from peace negotiations.

The Arab leaders issued a communique yesterday ending any form of regional cooperation with Israel and calling on Arab governments not to establish any new state-to-state ties with the Israelis. But multilateral cooperation is already on hold, and it would have been hard to conceive of any state expanding relations with Israel in the current environment.

Limited actions

There was no talk of using oil as a weapon, nor were Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries to have signed peace deals with Israel, asked to cut or curtail their ties.

The Libyan delegation walked out in frustration halfway through the weekend meeting. Israel's top spokesman immediately described the summit's outcome as "a victory of wisdom."

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