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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 21:37 GMT 22:37 UK
America's Arab allies feel the strain

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent in Cairo

Key ring with a photo of Jordan's King Abdullah and the al-Aqsa Mosque on sale in Amman, Jordan
Jordan's King Abdullah has been a key US ally in the Middle East
America's Arab allies do not just feel angry. They feel wounded, humiliated and threatened.

The real concern for leaders such as King Abdullah of Jordan, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, is that the US will succeed in igniting the Arab street.

Of course, the Arab street has always been angry at America for backing Israel, and now for events in Iraq, too.

But as you can hear from the furious chatter in any tea house in Cairo, the level of resentment is rising.

Assassinations

The really big change came with the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, in March.

To many Arabs, this seemed to be a unprecedented crime by Israel, and one they believe was sanctioned by the US.

Then came the second assassination of a Hamas figure, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, last week.

Finally, Arab leaders and their peoples had to endure the spectacle of a beaming, triumphant Ariel Sharon standing at the podium in the West Wing as the US appeared to tilt towards the Israelis in the Middle East "peace process".

So it is a difficult time to be an Arab friend of President Bush.

Restrained by protocol, King Abdullah said only that he wanted to "clarify" the American position.

But the snub was unambiguous as the King was already in the United States and cut short his visit to return home.

Peace plan

The King had earlier written a letter to President Bush.

It stressed the Jordanian position that the only way to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was through implementing the so-called roadmap.

An Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must be part of the peace plan and not an alternative to it, the King said in his letter.

President Bush (R) leans over to talk to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L)
Mubarak was said to be furious at the US's change of position

King Abdullah is no doubt worried that if Israel does remain in large parts of the West Bank - with American support - many more Palestinian refugees will head for Jordan.

And both the Jordanian and the Egyptian leaders are worried that if the US is accused of abandoning the roadmap, they - as key backers of the plan - will end up looking foolish at home.

One diplomat told me that President Mubarak was particularly furious that an apparent change in the US position, favourable to the Israelis, was signalled just two days after he had had talks at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Mr Mubarak was still on American soil, in Houston, giving interviews, and it was clear he had not been consulted.

Ghost of Balfour

The Arab media have called a letter from President Bush to Mr Sharon a new Balfour Declaration, a reference to the British promise in 1917 to allow a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The declaration, authored by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, is a deep scar in the Arab psyche.

It lingers in the Arab memory as a symbol of colonial powers giving away another people's land.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Mr Mubarak told Le Monde newspaper that America had never been so detested in the Arab world.

Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab states to have signed peace treaties with Israel.

They are the most important moderate allies of the United States in the Arab world.

If winning the war on terror depends on winning Arab hearts and minds, the anger and turmoil in these two key Middle Eastern countries is not good news for President Bush.




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