Two Arab states suspend links with Israel
By Andrew England and Tobias Buck in Jerusalem
Published: January 17 2009 02:00 | Last updated: January 17 2009 02:00
Two Arab states yesterday suspended ties with Israel, as Muslim and Arab officials called for Israeli leaders to be prosecuted for war crimes over the Jewish state's three-week offensive in Gaza.
In the strongest action yet taken by the increasingly divided Arab world, Qatar, which hosted the meeting, and Mauritania announced they would be suspending political and economic ties with Israel.
Qatar is the only Gulf state to have formal commercial ties with Israel and hosts an Israeli representative office in Doha, while Mauritania is one of just three Arab League members to have full diplomatic relations with the country.
The conference went ahead in spite of strong resistance from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the region's political heavyweights, and was attended by the leaders of Iran, Sudan, Algeria, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas.
Mr Meshaal warned that the Islamist group was not ready to accept Israeli conditions for a ceasefire, calling for a full withdrawal of Israeli troops and the immediate reopening of Gaza's borders. Israeli leaders want this to happen only after a mechanism is in place to stop the flow of arms to the Islamist group, and after what one official described as "sustainable quiet".
The Hamas leader said: "Despite all the destruction in Gaza, I assure you: we will not accept Israel's conditions for a ceasefire."
His comments came amid rising Israeli optimism that a diplomatic deal to end the fighting was close. "I hope we are entering the end game and that our goal of sustained and durable quiet in the south [of Israel] is about to be attained," said a government spokesman.
A communiqué released at the end of the Qatar meeting said the leaders would urge an Arab League summit due to be held later this month to halt talks on the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which offers Israel normal relations in return for, among other things, a withdrawal from all lands occupied since 1967. The moves are likely to increase the pressure on Egypt, and may complicate its diplomatic efforts to end the crisis, while providing a significant display of Arab support for Hamas.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, did not attend the meeting.
The war on Gaza has exacerbated rifts in the Arab world that have stymied efforts to reconcile and influence rival Palestinian factions, as well as regional efforts to form a common stand against Israel's actions.
So-called Arab moderate states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been wary that radical forces in the region, including Syria and Iran, will make political capital out of the crisis as criticism mounts that Arab leaders have failed to act while the body count in Gaza has soared to 1,138 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
The diplomatic search for a ceasefire appeared to pick up yesterday. Mr Meshaal sent his officials to Cairo for further discussions on an Egyptian ceasefire plan, soon after talks in Egypt between Omar Suleiman, the chief of intelligence, and two top Israeli officials. But the two sides still seemed to be at odds over the question of opening the border crossings, there is also disagreement about how long a ceasefire should last.
A key piece that could facilitate a ceasefire package fell into place yesterday, after Israel signed a memorandum with the US that promises greater international efforts to clamp down on arms smuggling to Hamas long before the weapons reach the Gaza Strip.