The Arab world has split three ways over the Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal agreement with no likelihood that a consensus soon will be reached either for or against it.
Both Lebanon and Syria have launched frenzied diplomatic campaigns for the hearts, minds and votes of other Arab leaders. Envoys of the two states are criss-crossing each other's paths as they scurry from capital to capital in search of support.
The Lebanese argue they have given up the least amount possible of their sovereignty in return for an Israeli withdrawal, while the Syrians are dubbing the agreement a sellout and "another Camp David."
Not since the signing of the original American-brokered Camp David accords in September 1978, opening the way for the historic Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty the following March, has the Arab world been subjected to such diplomatic ferment.
In contrast with the situation during the successful campaign to isolate and punish Egypt with a boycott, the opponents of the second Arab-Israeli treaty are fewer in number and weaker in strength. Another Arab League boycott seems out of the question, but Syria alone could inflict serious economic damage on Lebanon just by closing its border to Lebanese trade routes to the Arab world.
Not unexpectedly, the traditional divide between Arab hard-liners and moderates has reemerged with Syria instead of Iraq leading the first camp, backed by Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Egypt is taking the most forthright stand on behalf of Lebanon and the agreement.
More surprising is the emergence of a third bloc led by Saudi Arabia. It has avoided taking a clear stand, apparently in hopes of playing a bridging role between Syria and Lebanon.
The Saudi stance appears to be at odds with U.S. hopes that the Saudis would endorse the accords and apply heavy pressure on Syria to enter negotiations. But the standoff between supporters and opponents of the agreement could leave open the door for some kind of mediation.
Some Arab analysts here believe this may still be possible, citing as evidence of some Syrian flexibility the fact that Damascus has not yet closed its border to Lebanon or really gone beyond verbal abuse, albeit harsh and seemingly unyielding. Whether they are right should become clear as the Saudis maneuver to bring Lebanon and Syria to their own separate negotiating table.
Once again it seems that standard Saudi caution is prevailing in face of a highly divisive inter-Arab issue threatening the kingdom's own security. The traditional Saudi desire to hug the middle of the road was made clear in an ambiguous statement issued Tuesday by Information Minister Ali Shaer.
The carefully crafted declaration appeared to support Lebanon by stating that Saudi Arabia "expresses its respect for the free will of the Lebanese people as manifested through their constitutional institutions," a reference to the unanimous vote of the Lebanese Parliament in favor of the withdrawal agreement. But it went on in the same lengthy sentence to call for "the complete preservation of Lebanon's independence, Arabism, security and stability," the very elements that Syria claims are being undermined by the accord.
Significantly, there was no word of support for the accord itself.
The message behind these words, according to seasoned Saudi-watchers, was that the kingdom would try to bring the Syrians and Lebanese together but do little more.
The Saudi position was adopted almost verbatim here Thursday by foreign ministers from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Syria seems to be sparing no effort, particularly here in Saudi Arabia, in its campaign against the accords. Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam, in an interview with Radio Monte Carlo Saturday, said Syria was only willing to talk to Lebanon about renegotiating the entire accord.
Syria dispatched its information minister, Ahmed Iskander Ahmed, with yet another message for King Fahd after the visit here only two weeks ago of President Assad and Foreign Minister Khaddam for hours of intensive talks about the Israeli-Lebanese accord.
Earlier this past week, Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi sent his own envoy, Ahmed Qaddaf-Adem, to try to convince the king of the evils of the agreement and gain support for the Syrian rejection.
Meanwhile, Syria has sent another envoy, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Farouq Shar, to seek the support of the three North African states of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, whose leaders still have not declared themselves.
For its part, Lebanon has dispatched several high-ranking officials to the Arab gulf states, North and South Yemen, Egypt and Sudan to rally backing for its position.
The biggest difference between the inter-Arab battle over the Camp David accords and the current one over the Lebanese-Israeli agreement is that neither Iraq nor Algeria is any longer in the forefront of the hard-liners. In fact Lebanese officials say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has already given a measure of support to the Lebanese-Israeli agreement, attacking Syria although not endorsing the accord.
This stands in sharp contrast to Iraq's foremost role in rallying opposition to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty by hosting an Arab summit in March 1979 where Egypt was formally expelled from the Arab League. Since then Iraq has become bogged down in a debilitating war with Iran, which has sapped away most of its former radicalism and made it increasingly dependent on the conservative, wealthy gulf states.
Iraq's defection from the hard-line camp and Algeria's relative moderation seem certain to strengthen the hand of Lebanon and its supporters who, when the tally is completed, are likely to include Sudan, Somalia, Oman, Morocco and Jordan as well as Egypt.