News Analysis: Summits benefits outweigh failings

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JERUSALEM — To its detractors, the anti-terror "Summit of Peacemakers" at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula was little more than a giant publicity stunt.

But many participants — including President Bill Clinton — saw it much differently.

Clinton, pointing to the large number of world leaders at the conference, including heads of Arab states, said: "This summit is unprecedented in the history of the Middle East. It would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago."

Critics of the meeting described it as a thinly disguised photo op, pointing to the absence of two crucial pieces in the Middle East puzzle — Syria and Lebanon, both of which resisted pressure to attend.

In an effort to defuse some of those critics, Clinton, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told reporters that what had been achieved at the summit at Sharm el-Sheik far outweighed its deficiencies.

Judging from the outcome, they just may be right.

In an unprecedented show of solidarity, the leaders of many of the major Western nations and Arab states affirmed their support for the Middle East peace process and vowed to find the sources of financial support for terrorists and then "cut off" those sources.

"It stands as proof and promise that this region has changed for good," Clinton said. "Leaders from Israel and the Arab world, from Europe, from Asia, from North America — 29 of us shoulder-to-shoulder — join in support of peace."

Peres told Israeli reporters that the signatures of states such as Saudi Arabia on the summit's closing communiqué, which singled out Israel as a victim of terrorism, were "no small matter."

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal also voiced explicit and unequivocal support for the peace process, Peres noted.

Underscoring the growing acceptance of the Jewish state in the Arab world, Israeli officials pointed to the large number of Muslim countries at the summit — 14 in all.

They also disclosed Peres has been invited by the governments of Bahrain and Qatar, two Persian Gulf states represented at Sharm el-Sheik, to pay official visits to their countries later this month.

Observers here believed that the initiative by the Gulf states could not have been taken without prior Saudi approval.

One of the real gains, officials said, was the pledge of the international community to work together against terrorism.

The paradox here was that far from being work that can be conducted publicly, any real cooperation between the governments must be done quietly.

Reports that world leaders are planning to create a new international anti-terrorist network were clearly not going to be spelled out for the media at the Sharm el-Sheik conference.

Britain's Prime Minister John Major did touch on the subject when he said his government was cooperating with both Israel and the Palestinians.

Major, who compared the setback in the Middle East peace process with the current problems of Irish Republican Army terrorism and talks on the future of Ireland, refused to divulge details.

Similarly, Turkish President Suleiman Demirel, facing his own terrorism problem, focused on the need for close cooperation in intelligence services.

Peres alluded to the recent series of suicide bombings in Israel that killed 62 people. It was those attacks that drew the world leaders.

"Security and peace are indivisible," he said, echoing Clinton.

Peres also directed remarks at Iran, which along with Libya, Iraq and Sudan was not invited to the summit and which he described as the "address" of international terrorism.

"It is the regime which initiates, promotes and exports violence and fanaticism," Peres said. "Tehran has become the capital of terror. A conclusion must be drawn on how to contain it."

For the first time since the wave of bombings, Peres spoke approvingly of the actions of the Palestinian Authority against the extremists.

"I have to say that over the past few days they are beginning to act vigorously," Peres said, referring to the arrests of hundreds of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists.

Israeli sources also voiced satisfaction that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in his speech at the conference, had specifically condemned Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Arafat, vowing to "confront terror and uproot it from our land," had previously been more vague in public statements, anxious to avoid a head-on confrontation with the entire Islamic movement in the areas under his control.

Palestinian analysts told Reuters the summit would shore up Peres' image before Israeli elections but they doubted it would curb terrorism:

"There is a moral political boost to those who were directly affected by the last series of violent attacks, mainly Peres and Arafat," said Ziad Abu Amr, a member of the Palestinian Council.

Like other Palestinians, however, Abu Amr said he doubted the summit would alone stop terrorism.

Israelis, meanwhile, welcomed the show of support but also doubted it would stop terror attacks.

"This is a huge accomplishment; we shouldn't take it lightly," Dr. Ehud Sprinzak, an expert on radical groups, told Reuters. "On the other hand, this is not the thing that will wipe out the Hamas."

Others said the real measures against terrorism would come far from the media glare.

"I can't really see how you can fight terror on camera," Likud Knesset member Eliyahu Ben-Elissar told the wire service. "It has to be done in secrecy, in clandestine methods by intelligence services on the terrain, and not by the heads of state."

As a signal that Israel and the United States intended to cooperate more closely to fight terrorism, Clinton took his CIA chief, John M. Deutch, to the summit, and Deutch was scheduled to remain behind to meet with various defense and intelligence chiefs, The New York Times reported.

At the summit's conclusion, Clinton and Peres flew together from Sharm el-Sheik to Ben-Gurion Airport, where a state ceremony was held.

Clinton was scheduled to remain in Israel through Thursday in a deliberate statement of solidarity with the Israeli people. He was slated to attend a memorial ceremony at the gravesite of slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, meet with the Israeli Cabinet, and visit schoolchildren in Tel Aviv.

Security forces were on high alert in Jerusalem to prevent any possible Hamas terrorist attacks during Clinton's visit.

"We received general warnings, nothing specific" about threatened attacks, said Police Commissioner Assaf Hefetz.

Some 10,000 police officers, half of Israel's entire force, were on duty to protect Clinton during his visit to the capital.

Although Clinton was the principal world leader to stay on in Israel as a show of support, most Western leaders used their speeches at the summit's end to express sympathy for Israel's losses.

But only Britain's Major echoed Peres' explicit accusation that Iran was behind the terror attacks.

The Arab spokesmen were, not surprisingly, more evenhanded.

They referred to Israel's recent trauma but they also stressed the current suffering of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, hemmed into their towns and villages under a strict Israeli closure policy enacted after the terror attacks.

Arafat, while offering his condolences to Israel, warned that his own people were facing starvation.

Israel relaxed the closure somewhat Wednesday, allowing a convoy of trucks carrying foodstuffs to enter the Gaza Strip. Authorities also indicated that Israel would soon allow Palestinians to travel between towns and villages in the West Bank.

But Peres made it clear that Israel would continue to prevent Palestinians from crossing into Israel.

He also denied that he was under American or international pressure to lift the closure. "I will conduct the policy solely in the light of security considerations," he said.

In the communiqué issued at the end of the summit, the assembled leaders pledged to set up a working group that would recommend practical steps against terrorism within 30 days.

The communiqué also agreed in principle to enhanced financial aid to the region, especially to the Palestinians, who were singled out for assistance in French President Jacques Chirac's comments.

Before dispersing, the leaders posed for a group photograph.

Those in the front row — Clinton, Mubarak, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Morocco's King Hassan II, Jordan's King Hussein, Peres and Arafat — joined hands and held them aloft in a symbol of solidarity.