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Saudi plan buffeted, still afloat

Despite dramatic dissent at the Arab summit, a Saudi peace plan is still expected to pass.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 2002



BEIRUT, LEBANON

This gathering of the Arab world's leaders was supposed to send a message to Israel that Arab nations are united behind a Saudi peace initiative.

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The Beirut summit got off to a bumpy start. But the last-minute no-shows of three key leaders, a walkout of Palestinian delegates, and an apparent tightening of clauses in the Saudi proposal aren't likely to undermine this landmark Arab bid to break the impasse in the Middle East peace process.

"Walkouts at Arab summits are not unprecedented. But the bottom line is passing the Saudi proposal. Without it, the summit fails," sayd Farid Khazen, a professor of political science at the American University in Beirut. He added that the initiative, formally introduced by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah yesterday, would probably gain approval. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat welcomed the initiative and urged Arab leaders to endorse it.

But the summit was thrown into turmoil when the Palestinian delegation abruptly walked out after the Lebanese host, President Emile Lahoud, prevented Mr. Arafat from addressing the summit delegates by video link from Ramallah in the West Bank. The Lebanese claimed that technical difficulties and protocol procedure had blocked Arafat's speech. But the Palestinians remained unconvinced. "It is regrettable because this summit is not Lebanon's but belongs to all Arabs, the resistance and the intifada," said Farouk Qadoumi, the head of the Palestinian delegation. He described Mr. Lahoud's behavior as "unacceptable."

A little confusion

Arab delegates were discussing ending the summit a day early, as participants began drifting away. Despite the confusion, the Saudi peace initiative – the essence of which offers Israel full normalization with the Arab world in exchange for full withdrawal from land occupied since 1967 – was expected to be endorsed by the Arab summit.

Arafat's attendance in Beirut had been in doubt for days. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defied pressure from Washington to allow the Palestinian leader to travel to Beirut, saying he had not done enough to halt violence against Israel. President Mubarak said he stayed away from Beirut in support of Arafat, saying that Israel was treating the elderly Palestinian leader like a "school boy."

The decision of Jordan's King Abdullah not to attend was only announced hours before the opening session commenced. Also staying away were the top leaders of Qatar, Oman, and Mauritania, the other Arab countries that have a degree of diplomatic relations with Israel.

Western diplomats in Beirut and UN officials attending the summit were "disappointed" at the nonappearance of Arafat and the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab countries to have signed peace deals with Israel.

The presence in Beirut of Mr. Annan and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose country currently heads the European Union, underlined the importance of the summit to the international community.

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