Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Another anti-climax

What is the Arab public supposed to make of the Khartoum summit? Dina Ezzat, in the Sudanese capital, finds no clear answer

Hours after the Israeli elections ended in victory for the Kadima Party, which had campaigned on an imposed unilateral settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Arab summit that convened in Khartoum on Tuesday and Wednesday, and which barely half of the heads of Arab states attended, concluded on an anti- climactic note.

Predictably, the Khartoum declaration and the resolutions adopted by the Arab summit warned of the dangers inherent in the Israeli government unilaterally deciding the fate of the Arab territories it occupies.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa -- whose second term in office was endorsed by the summit -- warned in press statements that "for Israel to declare that it will unilaterally decide borders with Palestine is tantamount to announcing an end to the settlement process and that has very serious repercussions".

Neither the resolutions adopted by the Arab summit, nor statements made by Moussa and senior Palestinian officials, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, offered any indication of what the Arabs will do in an attempt to curb the new Israeli government from imposing its will.

The most the summit could manage was to reiterate the perimeters it believes limit any fair and durable settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict: withdrawal from Arab territories occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and a fair settlement to the plight of millions of Palestinian refugees in return for comprehensive Arab-Israeli normalisation.

While many of the participants argued that such a stand sent the right message to the international community and the Israeli public concerning Arab commitment to peace, few seemed to worry about how it might be received by Palestinians who struggle daily with the reality of occupation. Nor did anyone seem much bothered by the fact that the summit agreed to offer the Palestinians only half the financial aid they had requested.

Nor did the chair of the summit, or any of the 12 heads of state who turned up, call on Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Lebanese foe, Prime Minister Fouad Al-Siniora, to hold direct meetings to address the tensions that plague Syrian-Lebanese relations. And when Al-Assad and Al-Siniora finally bumped into each other in the corridors of the Friendship Hall where the summit convened the exchange between them was restricted to Al-Assad telling Al-Siniora that he was welcome in Damascus provided he had a well-studied agenda for talks.

Arab leaders also failed to rise to the challenge posed when Al-Siniora engaged his pro-Syrian president, Emile Lahoud, over the strength of the language adopted by the summit concerning Lebanese rights to resist Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory, including the Shebaa Farms.

Some Arab diplomats blamed the absence of both President Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi Monarch King Abdullah for the lost opportunity to make a breakthrough on the Syrian-Lebanese front. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the key mediators in this inter-Arab dispute and as such, said the critics, they should have secured the highest level of representation.

Their failure to do so, argued Lebanese commentators and some diplomats, sent a clear message to the international community, especially to Paris and Washington, that the Arab world would prefer an international solution to the crisis rather than an Arab one.

Less blurred, but by no means clear, messages were sent to the Iraqis and the Sudanese.

Iraqis were called upon to put their ethnic and religious differences aside and form a long overdue government. "The current state of chaos in Iraq is not solely caused by foreign occupation -- although that occupation is one of the main reasons for the chaos," said Moussa during a press conference following the conclusion of the summit yesterday afternoon. "The current ethnic and religious confrontation is the most disturbing development. Iraqi unity will be put at great risk if this conflict continues," Moussa warned.

To the people of Sudan the Arab summit offered support in ending the conflict between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels. Contrary to Sudanese government wishes it did not, however, oppose Security Council threats of international intervention should peace remain elusive. Humanitarian groups lay the blame for many of the brutal violations that have taken place in the Western province firmly at Khartoum's door.

The most alarming message, at least as far as international powers are concerned, sent by the summit was Moussa's call that it is necessary for the Arab world to forcefully promote its rights to the peaceful use of nuclear energy as enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The next Arab meeting at summit level may convene in Sharm El-Sheikh in the autumn if Arab capitals endorse President Mubarak's proposal for an annual meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh for informal consultations. Otherwise, Arab leaders will have to wait until 2007, when the next Arab summit convenes in Cairo following reluctance on the part of Saudi Arabia, due to assume the rotating chairmanship next year, to host the event.

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