|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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Seeking signs of consensusCan the forthcoming Arab summit produce a strong consensus on the two topmost issues on the regional agenda: Palestine and Iraq? The signs, as Dina Ezzat reports, do not seem promising, though Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa may find some solace in the fact that his resolve to overhaul the regional organisation is already producing results
The Arab foreign ministers meeting at the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League this Saturday appears set to provide a preview of the inter-Arab squabbles predicted for this month's summit.
The ministers will gather for their regular March meeting that is planned to last for two days and which comes only weeks before the summit in Beirut scheduled for 27-28 March.
"This ministerial meeting will be crucial in deciding the line and the tone of the Arab summit because the meeting will handle all of the issues that will appear on the agenda of the Beirut summit," said an Arab League source.
The list of contentious issues may not be very long, but as Arab diplomats agree, differences on them among Arab countries run deep. Two of the most obvious items are the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq.
Until a few weeks ago, the Arab-Israeli conflict was not expected to be a deeply divisive issue. "The only matter for which disparate views were expected was the extent of support for the Palestinians' right to resist the Israeli occupation, particularly in the case of the Intifada," said one Arab diplomat. He added that the Palestinians do not want the summit declaration to include explicit references to the Intifada because of their understandings with the US and due to the fact that Egypt and Jordan are also against references to the uprising. However, the Syrians and Lebanese, with the support of Iraq and to some extent Libya, have indicated that they want the summit declaration to emphasise Arab support for the right of resistance.
However, those differences appeared relatively minor when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah announced that he was planning to present a peace initiative at the upcoming Arab summit. Abdullah's proposal stipulates that Arab states recognise Israel and normalise relations with it in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in 1967. The initiative, which elicited mixed reactions in Israel and internationally, has brought the latent intra-Arab competition to the fore. "There is a divergence of opinion on the proposal, but the only reason opposition from some Arab capitals is not loud and clear is that the suggestions are coming from one of the most, if not indeed the most, influential Arab capital," said one Arab diplomat.
Cairo and Amman responded coolly to the Saudi suggestions, as Riyadh appeared to be hijacking the traditional role of Egyptian and Jordanian diplomacy. As far as Cairo and Amman are concerned, the initiative contains nothing that has not already been on the table since the 1996 Cairo Arab summit. That meeting declared peace a strategic choice for Arab countries, indicating that the Arabs would normalise relations with Israel upon its full withdrawal from all Arab territories occupied in 1967.
The Syrians and Lebanese, for their part, were apprehensive that implementing the proposal might launch a thoroughgoing normalisation of Arab relations with Israel before it withdraws from the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and the Lebanese Shebaa Farms. Consequently, as far as Syria and Lebanon are concerned, said one Arab diplomat, what the Saudis are proposing "is insufficiently clear."
This concern was expressed by Syrian and Lebanese officials in New York during discussions that took place at the United Nations. Points raised by the two countries were clarified in a joint Syrian- Lebanese statement, issued in Beirut on Sunday at the end of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's visit there -- the first by a Syrian head of state in 50 years. The statement affirmed that a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict must be based on all relevant UN resolutions.
Arab leaders during the last summit in Amman
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was more vocal about his opposition to the Saudi ideas. In statements issued on Saturday, Gaddafi openly criticised the Saudi initiative and said that the Saudis "stained themselves with dirt" by offering the initiative. "It is impossible to have two countries on the [land of Palestine]; it would be like putting two feet in a single shoe, two bodies in one dress or two pairs of legs in one pair of trousers," Gaddafi said. He added that if a Palestinian state was declared in Gaza and the West Bank, he would not recognise it, saying that it would be "a phony state, just like Israel." Instead, Gaddafi suggested that a single state should be established by both peoples on the land of Palestine. He suggested "Isratine" as a name for the hypothetical state.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi expressed dismay at the way Arab countries have been handling their affairs, focusing on the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He went as far as to suggest that Libya should consider withdrawing from the Arab League, characterising Arab states' handling of their affairs as "comic".
Arab diplomatic sources tell Al-Ahram Weekly that the main reason Gaddafi was upset with the Saudi initiative is that it received more attention than a proposal that he had offered last year at the Amman Arab summit. Gaddafi proposed that Arab states not only recognise Israel but allow it to join the Arab League, in return for full withdrawal from all occupied lands. Needless to say, league members did not take the Libyan leader's suggestions seriously.
An informed source told the Weekly that Gaddafi, during a telephone conversation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, made it clear that he was upset about the Saudi ideas and that he intended to publicise his opposition. "Egypt seemed to sympathise with the Libyan leader," commented the source who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity.
On Sunday, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa arrived in Sirte, Libya, for a five- hour meeting with Gaddafi. The Libyan leader subsequently agreed to suspend taking any measures to withdraw from the Arab League. Consequently, Libya is preparing for its participation in Saturday's Arab foreign ministers council and the Beirut Arab summit. Moussa assured Gaddafi that the Arab-Israeli conflict and related proposals would be carefully examined.
On Monday, Moussa, who had welcomed the Saudi initiative as a clear declaration of the Arab will for peace in return for the full recovery of the rights of Arab states, was in Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Abdullah and the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal.
"The Saudi initiative aims to deal with the alarming situation in the occupied territories," Al-Faisal said. "It is based on the Arab position that peace is a strategic choice that can only be achieved through the principle of land-for- peace," he added.
Moussa agreed with Tripoli and Riyadh that their initiatives would be discussed thoroughly at the Beirut Arab summit in light of developments in the occupied territories and talks conducted by several Arab countries with the United States and the European Union.
Syrian President Al-Assad visited Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to discuss Prince Abdullah's initiative.
Moussa said upon his return from Saudi Arabia, "Deliberations are underway among concerned parties and we will have more detailed talks when the foreign ministers' council convenes on 9-10 March." He added that all Arab proposals share the common goal of securing Arab rights. "I do not see that any of the ideas that are being floated or discussed among Arab countries contradict each other. It is always possible for us to reach a common agreement," he added.
Moussa's diplomatic line rings partially true regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is less convincing concerning the matter of Iraq.
Iraq is hoping that the Beirut summit will adopt a resolution that would pre-empt any attempts by the US and the UK to obtain Arab support for military attacks against Iraq as part of the US- declared war against terrorism. The Arab League secretary-general, who has been mustering all of his diplomatic skills to build a consensus amongst Arab countries against strikes on Iraq, is hoping that Iraqi Foreign Minister Nagi Sabri Al-Hadithi will bring good news about his discussions with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the council of foreign ministers meeting. Al- Hadithi and Annan are scheduled to meet today in New York. "If Iraq and the UN begin a constructive dialogue, things could take a turn for the better," commented one Arab League source.
Most Arab countries are hoping that Iraq will be spared a military strike that could well aim to topple President Saddam Hussein's regime. In Washington this week, President Mubarak was expected to tell President George W Bush's administration that a strike against Iraq is the worst course action that could be taken in the Middle East in view of the current situation in the occupied territories.
Kuwait, it appears, is much less sympathetic on the matter of Iraq. Kuwait has asked Lebanon, the chair of the upcoming Arab summit, to remove the issue of Iraq from the agenda. And Kuwait will see its influence increased in the Arab league when on 9 March it assumes the presidency of the league's council of foreign ministers -- a responsibility that is rotated every six months. An informed source said, "Since Arab League Secretary-General Moussa visited Baghdad on 18 January, the Kuwaitis have made it very clear that they do not want to have an item about the 'state of affairs between Iraq and Kuwait' on the Beirut agenda." However, Kuwaiti diplomats say that they might accept the inclusion of an item about supporting the Iraqi people.
"We know Saddam very well. We know what he is up to and that he is only bluffing. We believe that he should be toppled; this is the best thing for the Iraqi people," commented a Kuwaiti source who is close to the Kuwaiti government. The source added, "We believe that this summit should not deal with anything other than the situation in the occupied territories. We should focus on this matter and avoid falling into the trap of disagreeing on other issues."
This is not an option that most Arab states would entertain. "The Palestinian issue will certainly top the agenda of the summit. However, the summit will not be a single-issue meeting. Other equally important political, economic and social issues will be discussed," asserted Moussa.
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