CAIRO, Egypt—Arab leaders meeting here Saturday condemned Israel's bombing campaign in Lebanon as the death knell for any hope of negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But they stopped short of supporting the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, which triggered the latest round of violence by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers last week.
Arab governments are hamstrung over what to tell their citizens, who are incensed by four days of Israeli land, sea and air attacks on a fellow Arab nation that now threaten to engulf the entire region.
Responding too timidly could erode the Arab governments' legitimacy, but reacting more boldly could be interpreted as tacit approval of Hezbollah, which has ties to the Islamist groups that threaten their own autocratic regimes, monarchies and start-up democracies.
"They condemn Israel, but at the same time they have their own problems with the Islamist movements and don't support them," said Diaa Rashwan, an expert on militant Islam at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "They're confused."
The Bush administration has hailed elections in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories as the harbingers of a democratic tide in the Middle East. But Sunni and Shiite Muslim Islamist parties have been the biggest winners in all three places, emerging as the most credible alternative to the region's U.S.-backed regimes, which are widely considered corrupt, stagnant and ineffectual.
Hezbollah now has members in the Lebanese cabinet as well as the parliament; Hamas won control of the Palestinian government in January; and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest opposition force in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and several other predominantly Sunni nations. In Iraq, Shiite political parties with ties to Iran's Islamic Republic emerged strongest from parliamentary elections last December.
Israel's incursion into Lebanon has highlighted the gap between Arab government policies and public sentiment. While state-backed newspapers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt criticized Hezbollah's operation as a "miscalculation," independent and opposition papers across the region reflected support for militants and printed graphic photos of the civilian victims of Israel's air strikes.
Similar divisions surfaced during the talks Saturday at the Arab League, said several representatives who took part in the meeting but asked not to be quoted by name because the discussions are supposed to remain confidential.
They said officials split into three camps over how to address the crisis. Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Algeria showed strong support for Hezbollah. American-allied nations such as Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, meanwhile, consider the group responsible for much of the violence. Countries such as Morocco, Sudan, Libya and Oman didn't blame Hezbollah, but urged it to work more closely with the Lebanese government.
In an acknowledgment of the wide support for militant Islamists, Qatar's foreign minister told his counterparts that it was their duty to find a response consistent with Arab public opinion, several participants said.
In Syria, pro-Hezbollah rallies erupted in Palestinian refugee camps, and cars carrying the group's yellow-and-green flags paraded through the streets of a Shiite suburb outside Damascus, the capital.
"We are with Hezbollah—we're just waiting for the word," said Sadeq Mashhadiyeh, 41, a sidewalk vendor in Damascus who lived in Lebanon until Syrian forces withdrew from the country last year. "In Iraq, they did not allow us to fight. There, they will welcome us."
Other Syrians said they were confident that Israel wouldn't attack their country because Iran's hard-line leadership has pledged to defend Syria against any Israeli attack, a move almost certain to plunge the region into chaos.
"Nothing will happen here because Iran warned them that if they come close to Syria, they will defend us," said Sami Bazarto, a 29-year-old Syrian barber.
Kazem Jalali, a powerful member of the Iranian legislature's national security and foreign policy committee, told McClatchy newspapers that Hezbollah, which is supported largely by Iran, had made "missteps" but charged that Israel had been waiting for any small transgression to punish Palestinians and Lebanese for voting militants into office.
"The resistance movement and the new intifada (uprising) was like a slap to Israel's face," Jalali said. "They've been looking for a perfect moment to take revenge . . . they want to totally ignore the elections."
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Rhonda Romani in Damascus, Syria and Salome Abtahi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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