'The Darkest Moment In Palestinian History'

By The Dead Sea, Jordan - When "The World Economic Forum On The Middle East" planned its conference it could not have foretold that the intra-Arab conflict in Gaza, the Israeli air strikes on that most miserable of places, and the rocket rain on Israel, would pollute the forum like a poison fog, crowding even the American debacle in Iraq for attention.

It was the prospect of a Palestinian civil war or worse -- a "Mogadishu syndrome," as the Palestinian Authority's Saeb Erekat called it -- that really hurt. "What happened is the darkest moment in Palestinian history," he said. "I am ashamed."

So personal was the pain that one felt like an intruder on a private Arab sorrow. "Whereas the talk for so many years has been the Palestinian cause," now it is the very "fabric of the Palestinian people" that is at stake, Erekat said. And Lebanon seemed no better off.

Many Arabs wondered how they could present their case to Israel, to the United States, and to the world, when their own side was in such disarray.

Palestinians killing Palestinians was a nightmare come true, not just for the Middle East, but for the greater Muslim community as well. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of Pakistan said that the Palestinian problem was at " the core of stability" for the world, and that the lack of rights for Palestinians fostered terrorism.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, reminded Palestinians that infighting in his country had caused more damage than the Soviet invasion.

Prince Turki al Faisal al Saud , Saudi Arabia's former ambassador to the United States, implored Palestinians to "stop fighting each other, and stop fighting Israelis on military terms." He said that Israel was too strong to defeat, and that only the civil disobedience tactics of Gandhi would "get what you want from the Israelis." The Saudis had brokered a unity government among the Palestinians, or so they thought. Now the whole project seemed close to ruin, despite a fragile cease-fire.

Jordan's king, Abdullah II, has been around the world trying to promote and reinvigorate the Arab initiative, which would guarantee that the 22 Arab states would all recognize Israel and commit themselves to peace in exchange for a pullback to 1967 borders. He keeps telling anyone who will listen that the window of opportunity for a peaceful and just settlement is fast closing. Israel has expressed some interest, but there is no freeze on settlements in the West Bank, and soon, the Arabs fear, there will be no more chance for a contiguous Palestinian state. If this opportunity is missed, the Arabs fear that conflict will continue for another 50 years and that any hoped-for economic development of the region will be stillborn. The stars could not be more adversely aligned.

The Palestinians are at each other's throats, Israel has the weakest and most unpopular government in memory, and the Americans, without whom Arabs feel there can be no lasting settlement, are obsessed and absorbed with their self-inflicted wound in Iraq.

Palestinians say they are ready for a settlement, and Israel's Shimon Peres assured them that Israel is too. No one really believes that the outstanding difficulties, the right of return and boundary adjustments, could not be overcome. But all the good will in the world at the World Economic Forum may not be enough to reassure the Israeli public or unite the Palestinians.

In a high moment, Saeb Erekat scolded Iranians here for threatening to erase Israel from the map, saying that Palestinians were trying to get peace and a two-state solution with Israel, and that Iran was not helping.

The Iranians came to the Dead Sea to put their best foot forward, saying it was not Iran's goal or wish to destroy Israel, but they were on the defensive among Arabs who are deeply suspicious of Iran's intentions.

Arabs here deplore the American presence in Iraq, and fear what will happen when it's gone. And hopes for an end to the Palestinian problem that has so bedeviled the region for 40 years seemed further away than ever last week.

The Israeli-occupied West Bank can be seen blood red in the setting sun just across the narrow waters from here -- waters that are shrinking every year as surely as the lands left for the Palestinians.

The Dead Sea is said to be the lowest point on the face of the earth. It gets its name because its waters contain no life.

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