Outlook for Arab summit cloudy

Lack of unity will make it difficult to sell peace plan, promise of normal relations

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Amid the chaos of angry words, walkouts and stay-at-home protests, Saudi Arabia presented a peace plan Wednesday to an Arab summit riven by internal conflicts and historical hatreds. The lack of unity could make it difficult to sell the plan and its promise of normal relations between Israel and the Arab world.

Nearly drowned out by the theatrics in Beirut and the new violence in Israel was a proposal by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah for pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for the return of Arab lands. If endorsed today by the entire Arab summit as expected, the plan may provide the basis for future peace negotiations after the violence subsides.

Israeli officials criticized the Saudi plan as too vague and complained that the new language offering ''normal relations'' somewhat weakens the idea of ''normalization'' initially floated by Abdullah. Israel wants open borders with tourism and trade -- not just formal diplomatic ties.

The Saudi plan has more strings attached than in February when Abdullah first sketched out the proposal. Reportedly added at Syria's suggestion, the plan demands Palestinian refugees return home after decades of exile.

The plan also demands a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital even though Israel insists the city remain united under its sovereignty. The plan -- at least the English language translation of it -- limits the demand to ''east Jerusalem,'' which Israel captured from Jordan's control in the 1967 Mideast war.

Israel views the demand to let millions of Palestinians return to land that is now part of Israel would upset the population balance and destroy the Jewish nature of the state. Danny Ayalon, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said it is ''totally unacceptable.''

Abdullah's 10-minute presentation at the summit's opening session was met with applause from participants. Other Arab leaders spoke in favor of the idea, albeit some with suggested modifications. A more formal verdict must await the summit's final communique to be issued Thursday.

In all, slightly more than half of the Arab heads of state in the 22-member organization stayed away, some citing reasons of health or internal politics that may reflect long-simmering feuds and jealousies.

The leaders most able to sell the deal to Israel, to other Arabs and the international community stayed home: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

The Palestinians walked out of the first session in a spat with Lebanon, which prevented a live telecast of Yasser Arafat's speech to the summit. Lebanon, the summit host, has bitter memories of Arafat's state-within-a-state and the civil war it helped caused in the 1970s.

The United Arab Emirates, in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians, followed suit.

Reports emerging from Amman, both officially and unofficially, suggested several possibilities: King Abdullah was sick, suffering from ''exhaustion and a sore throat'' after a trip abroad. Or there were concerns about his safety in Beirut, home of the Hezbollah guerrillas. Jordan recently arrested three Hezbollah members for allegedly trying to smuggle rockets through Jordan to West Bank Palestinians.

Mubarak said he stayed home out of solidarity with Arafat and accused Israel of subjecting the Palestinian leader to ''blackmail, insult and humiliation'' in refusing to give him a round-trip ticket to Beirut. Earlier, the Egyptians had blamed Mubarak's cancellation on unspecified ''domestic commitments'' and added, without quite explaining the logic, that he could better serve the cause by working for the Saudi plan from the outside instead of from the inside.

Veteran commentators, both Arab and Western, suggested that Mubarak -- and possibly King Abdullah, too -- were miffed that someone else had stolen the peacemaking spotlight traditionally owned by Egypt and Jordan.

But there are two good reasons for Saudi leadership of any effort to bring all -- or, at least, most -- of the Arabs together in offering ''normal relations'' to Israel after 54 years of denying the right for a Jewish state to exist in their midst:

Saudi Arabia is the home of, and the accepted guardian of, the holiest shrines in Islam, the uniting faith of the vast majority of Arabs, regardless of their political and sectarian differences.

Saudi Arabia, like Egypt and Jordan, is one of the United States' staunchest Arab allies. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, it is also a wealthy, oil-rich ally with the clout to make things happen.

Earleen Fisher, the AP's chief of Middle East Services since 1992, has reported from the Middle East and the Islamic world since 1977. Now based in Cairo, her previous posts include Beirut and Tel Aviv.

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