Splits Emerge Among Arab Gov'ts Over Hizballah

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The war in Lebanon is exposing rifts in the Arab-Islamic world, as governments facing internal demands to take a stronger stand against Israel differ over Hizballah's role in the crisis.

From across the region come reports of protests by lawmakers and citizens demanding a unified position, but Arab League foreign ministers holding an urgent meeting in Cairo failed to see eye-to-eye.

Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television satellite network, reported that the Syrian minister, who supported Hizballah's attacks against Israel, clashed with the Saudi representative, who did not.

Syria media quoted the country's foreign minister, Walid Moualem, as saying his government could not accept any message coming out of the ministers' meeting that "could be exploited by Israel," and referring in particular to "any remark" that could be used to justify Israeli aggression against Arabs.

Earlier, White House spokesman Tony Snow expressed the hope the Arab ministers would echo Western concerns about Hizballah, the Lebanese-based, Iranian- and Syrian-backed terrorist group which killed and kidnapped Israeli soldiers during a cross-border raid last week, triggering the conflict.

Since then Israel has subjected Lebanon to the fiercest bombardment since 1982, its choice of targets indicating both a desire to cripple Hizballah and the hope that the abducted soldiers will not be smuggled out of the country -- especially to Syria or Iran -- by road, sea or air.

Hizballah for its part has fired hundreds of missiles into Israel, aiming for targets ever deeper into Israeli territory, including the cities of Haifa and Tiberias and, overnight Sunday, the Jezreel valley.

Israel was buoyed by indications of a split in Arab ranks late last week, when Jordan's King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned -- though without naming Hizballah or its sponsors -- against "dragging the region into 'adventures' that don't serve the Arab issues and interests."

The statement, released by Jordan's Petra news agency after the two held emergency talks in the Egyptian capital, also urged the Lebanon's government "to establish its authority over all Lebanese territory."

Since Israel withdrew from a security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, Hizballah has enjoyed free rein in the area, untroubled by any government in Beirut.

Political analysts say the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is worried that trying to extend its control all the way to the border could risk a new civil war. In a weekend television address, Siniora called on the Lebanese people "to work to extend the state's authority over all its territories, in co-operation with the United Nations in southern Lebanon."

Abdullah and Mubarak also referred to "the need for all parties in the region to be responsible and not contribute to escalation that could drag the region into a dangerous situation," a call seen as aimed not only at Israel, but also at Syria and Iran.

Saudi Arabia also has been unusually frank in its criticism of Hizballah: A senior official told the state-run Saudi News Agency that "it is necessary to make a distinction between legitimate resistance [against Israeli occupation] and irresponsible adventurism adopted by certain elements within the state."

"These elements ... risk putting in danger all the Arab countries and their achievements before these countries have said a word," the Saudi official said.

An editorial in the Saudi daily Arab News Monday said Hizballah had "triggered a crisis when there was no particular reason to do so."

From Bahrain, too, came a government statement that condemned Israel but also called on all parties involved to solve the problem through dialogue, not through "miscalculated escalation" that could drag the whole region into a war and harm Arab-Islamic interests.

"What Hizballah has done is to force people to make choices," Snow told reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, where G8 leaders are meeting.

"And what you're beginning to see is Arab nations coming to the realization that independent actors and terrorist organizations like Hizballah are an active threat to everybody, because ... a small number of people can work to destabilize not only a nation, but to aim at destabilizing a region."

/s4 'Peace process is dead'

Whatever their differences over Hizballah, Arab League ministers found common ground in condemning Israel's military operations in Lebanon and in Gaza, where an earlier crisis over Hamas' abduction of an Israeli soldier and rocket attacks continues.

Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa declared the Mideast peace process "dead"

The ministers' meeting was followed by a rowdy press conference, with heated questioning by Arab journalists prompting an admission of helplessness from Moussa: "Don't ask me what to do."

The split in official Arab ranks appears to be between radical elements that support Iran - which Israel, the U.S., Britain and others have accused of having a major role in the crisis - and those who have good relations with the U.S.

Despite differences over the behavior of Hizballah and its backers, however, anti-Israel sentiment is running strong in the region.

Yemen's foreign minister urged Arab states to end all cooperation with Israel - a call aimed primarily at Jordan and Egypt, both of which maintain chilly relations with the Jewish state.

Lawmakers in Yemen are calling for an emergency summit of Arab leaders; for a portion of the Gulf state's oil revenues to be earmarked for "Arab resistance against Israeli occupation"; and for the U.S. ambassador to be expelled because of Washington's support for Israel.

In Bahrain, lawmakers issued a statement condemning Arab governments for not coming to the aid of the Lebanese and Palestinian people.

In Kuwait, protest demonstrations have been held, including one by pro-Hizballah protestors outside the U.S. Embassy on Saturday.

But contrary views were also heard in the country.

Writing in Kuwait's Al-Seyassah, Ahmad al jar Allah criticized Lebanese politicians for not speaking out sufficiently against Hizballah and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

"They haven't shared with their people that they don't agree with Nasrallah's stealing of the country's rights and his command over the entire population in an attempt to gain support for his plans."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow