Neighbors / In the Crossfire of Their Arab Brethren

"The Palestinians are responsible for the damage inflicted to their cause. In no other historical chapter did we witness a liberation front with three or four armies and a different political vision for every single one of the factions, which are fighting each other at a time when the enemy is fighting them. The Arab states must admit the truth and so must the various Palestinian factions."

These are not the words of an Arab commentator or a Western researcher. These extremely angry statements were made by Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal last week, following the meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo.

Over the past few years, the Arab League's foreign ministers forum has acted as a shock absorber, trying to somehow provide cover for the deep rifts among the leaders of the Arab world. It is this forum that usually draws up the final resolutions at summit meetings and its members meet even when the Arab leaders themselves are not on speaking terms with one another. The forum is also responsible for the occasional attempts to get mediating initiatives off the ground. Its framework is less formal than the league summits themselves, where declarations are measured and phrased in a manner that will satisfy the lowest common denominator. That is why the foreign ministers forum is more interesting - because of its outspoken declarations, such as al-Faisal's statement.

"The Arab states have not been neglectful in fulfilling their duties toward the Palestinians," al-Faisal said, dismissing the accusations Arab citizens have leveled against their countries' leaderships. "Take a look at Egypt for example - how much it has invested and how much it has sacrificed on behalf of the Palestinians. The Arab states have stood at the Palestinians' side but they, to our great regret, are fighting one another. They have a problem and they must concentrate on solving that problem. The issue is not a struggle for leadership."

Amr Moussa, the league's secretary general, who normally is not sparing in his criticism of Israel and the United States, also did not hold back this time. "There is no goalkeeper in the Palestinians' playing field because of the arguments among the factions," he said. "I am extremely angry with the Palestinian organizations, not with the wretched Palestinian people, because these organizations are responsible for what is happening. They understand very well that there still is no Palestinian state in which one can compete for the top jobs. They must set up the state and gain its right to exist. Once that is done, they can start arguing among themselves."

However, the Arab League's foreign ministers are aware of their own weakness when it comes to promoting reconciliation among the warring sides. While months of discussions with the Palestinian factions did result in the cease-fire deal with Israel, they did not advance the dialogue between Hamas and Fatah.

Now, Islamic Jihad, too, is at loggerheads with Hamas. On the face of it, this latest rift is linked to anger over the participation of Gazans in the strike by teachers identified with Fatah. But the argument began before that already. In an interview to the Al-Hayat newspaper at the end of August, Islamic Jihad's leader, Ramadan Abdallah Shalah, called on Hamas and Fatah to make concessions to one another. Hamas reacted angrily, asking why Shalah had suddenly become a mediator and why he had called on the Arab states, especially Egypt, to put an equal amount of pressure on both sides.

Hamas officials are afraid that Egypt is acting against them and putting up a barrier between Hamas and the other factions in an effort to pressure the organization. For its part, Egypt is trying to promote the idea of sending Arab forces to Gaza, to replace Hamas' military control of the Strip. Cairo believes such a move may return the situation to the status quo that existed before Hamas' takeover of the Strip. Hamas is opposed to the idea, threatening that it will not allow any foreign force, Arab or otherwise, to enter Gaza. For Hamas, Egypt's proposal seems like yet another Arab effort to push it from power. Instead of an Arab force, the organization is proposing that the Arab states work toward lifting Israel's embargo on Gaza and act to ensure the opening of the Rafah crossing point.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for his part, has adopted Egypt's idea. But as long as Hamas does not accept the proposal, his acceptance is irrelevant. Cairo is fully aware of this and Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Geith has already clarified that an Arab force can only be sent to the Strip once the Palestinian sides reach an agreement. Meanwhile, Egypt is continuing its dialogue with Abbas and other Palestinian factions concerning a possible reconciliation - but Hamas is not a party to these talks yet.

A new Egyptian proposal is currently being formulated, which, according to Al-Hayat, calls for establishing a transitional government made up of unaffiliated technocrats, with the aim of preparing for both parliamentary and presidential elections. This framework would also draw up a national covenant, aimed at getting Israel to vacate the territories it conquered in 1967 and finding a solution for the Arab refugees. Egypt also hopes Hamas will agree to make do with the 1967 borders.

The proposal has not yet reached Hamas officially, but the organization's representatives are expected to be invited to Cairo once Ramadan is over, around October 1. Perhaps by then Israel will have a new prime minister, Abbas will have returned from his visit to Washington and Syria might agree to up its pressure on Hamas so the latter will finally agree to accept the reconciliation.

Students, on condition

The entrance exams to Iran's universities are a nightmare that accompanies every student from the moment they register for elementary school. During three days, the candidates for 54 universities and some 40 schools of medicine are required to answer dozens of questions in several fields of knowledge. Religion is one of the subjects - albeit not the most central. The exams also cover fields that are taught in every regular school in the West, from mathematics to poetry. There are two stages to these tests: The first one determines which of the approximately two million applicants can attend university in general, whereas the second stage decides where and what each student is permitted to study.

Until now, the candidates have known that it is only by virtue of their performance in the exams that they will receive a place at one Iran's good universities. This year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has added another condition - some two thirds of the students accepted to university must be residents of the regions where the universities are located.

The result is that many outstanding students from the rural areas will not be able to study in Tehran, where the best schools are. The aim of the new stipulation is to increase supervision of students and provide advantages to those from families that support the regime. Until now, large-scale student protests have been to little avail, but Ahmadinejad now has to deal with yet another sector of the population that is dissatisfied.