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Public Challenges Arab Leaders on Lebanon Conflict


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea, in for Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is now in its third week, and as the attacks on both on both Lebanon and Israel continue with no let-up in sight, there are renewed calls for a ceasefire. Arab leaders who were initially critical of Hezbollah are under pressure to change their stance. And Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has emerged as a hero on the Arab street.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins me now from the Syrian capital, Damascus. Good morning.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Deborah, it now appears that Washington's Arab allies are distancing themselves from the Bush administration's stance on this.

AMOS: It's true that momentum is building for an immediate ceasefire, and you can hear that in the most recent statements from Arab leaders. One example is Jordan's King Abdullah. He condemned what he called Israeli aggression against Hamas and Hezbollah, and that's unusually harsh language from Jordan's king. His country has signed a peace treaty with Israel. His uncle, Prince Hassan, wrote a letter to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and it was published this morning. Very eloquent, urging an end to the fighting. Jordan is rushing humanitarian aid to Lebanon.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak now talks about arranging a ceasefire to protect all of Lebanon's sects. It appears their fear of the growing power of Hezbollah, which Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia see as a proxy for Iran in the region, that's taken a back seat to overwhelming public approval of Hezbollah. In this kind of conflict, Israel has to score a decisive win, and it's not been able to do that. Hezbollah only has to survive to be seen as a winner.

MONTAGNE: And what about Saudi Arabia? Staunch US supporter, now expressing disappointment with Washington.

AMOS: Well, in the early days of this conflict, Saudi Arabia made statements calling Hezbollah's actions reckless adventurism. And that was a watershed moment in the Middle East. A powerful Arab state, a Sunni Muslim power, was criticizing an Islamic group, a Shiite Muslim one. And it may be that the Saudis calculated Hezbollah would be smashed quickly by the Israeli military, but it hasn't happened. Hezbollah has fought harder, held out longer than anybody expected, including the Israelis. So this week, Saudi commentators have quoted Saudi leaders warning that patience with Washington will not last forever. The Saudi king himself warned that the war could become a regional conflict that would spare no one.

The Saudis have delivered $1 billion to Lebanon's Central Bank this week, and that's to demonstrate they will be the main funders of Lebanon's reconstruction, rather than Iran. A Saudi telethon raised $30 million in one day. Here in Damascus, Renee, Saudi trucks are lined up to drive into Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross organized the large convoy, but the Saudis are in such a hurry to get there, they're breaking away from the organized convoy to take a more direct but a more dangerous route into Beirut.

MONTAGNE: Well, the US involvement in Iraq of course hasn't helped any of this in terms of the Arab view of America.

AMOS: Bashing America is a regular feature in this part of the world, but it's taken to another level now by what Arabs are seeing on their television screens. So the pro-American Arab leaders have to try to cool those tempers. But the conflict has added new challenges for their support for the US. Western diplomats here give the Bush administration a failing mark in public diplomacy. As one said to me, for the first time Washington has a Made in Israel tag stamped on its forehead, and it looks like the US is doing Israel's bidding and has failed to make its own goals clear.

You know, the US Secretary of State's catch phrase about creating a new Middle East, it's discussed all the time here. For the Bush administration it means promoting democracy, but here it's understood as a code phrase, an Arab Middle East dominated by Israel with American backing. There was a cartoon in the Jordanian newspaper that showed a tank, an Israeli tank, sitting at a demolished apartment building in the shape of Arab states. And the caption: The New Middle East.

MONTAGNE: Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Deborah Amos in Damascus, Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.