Saudi plan buffeted, still afloat

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

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.

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.

But Prince Abdullah went ahead with his presentation of the plan. "Starting from this point I propose that the Arab League present a collective program to the [UN] Security Council based on normal relationships and security to Israel in parallel with an independent Palestinian country with its capital Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian people to come back to their homeland."

American and European officials have quietly encouraged the delegates to confine the Saudi proposal to the barest elements and not become embroiled in details that could halt it. "This is not the moment to develop a detailed plan, but [instead] to develop some basic ideas in which the Arab world stands together and offers to the Israelis for peace and stability," says Javier Solana, the European Union foreign policy chief.

A Beirut-based European diplomat explained that if the Arab delegates began adding conditions to the proposal, "it will cause problems."

"If the summit results in a proposal full of impossible conditions, Israel will simply say 'thank you very much, good-bye, and see you in 20 years'," the diplomat said.

Syria and Lebanon were wary of the Saudi initiative when it was first announced in early March. Damascus prefers a cold peace with Israel rather than establishing full diplomatic relations. Lebanon's concerns lie in the fate of some 350,000 Palestinian refugees residing in the country.

"We cannot accept settlement of any Palestinian refugees in Lebanon under any conditions," says Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The details ...

In response to the concerns of Syria and Lebanon, the latest drafts of the proposal now refer to "normal relations within the context of comprehensive pace," a shift from the simple formula of full normalization for full withdrawal.

Saudi officials in Beirut said that Lebanon's worries over the Palestinian refugees have also been addressed. While the original proposal contained vague calls for a "fair solution" to the plight of the refugees, the latest draft specifies the answer lies in "strict conformity" to UN Resolution 194. The resolution says the refugees have a right to return to the homes they fled in 1948 on the creation of the state of Israel and compensation for those who choose to remain in exile.

Israel has consistently rejected the resolution, claiming that allowing the refugees to return would alter the Jewish characteristics of the state.

At the beginning of the opening session, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, the summit's host, called for a minute's silence for the Palestinians killed in the 18-month intifada or uprising.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad, whose uncompromising speech was three times as long as the other delegates, called on the Arab leaders to break off relations with Israel until there is a comprehensive Middle East peace.

"I propose the breaking off of Arab countries' relations with Israel until the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace, with the total [Israeli] withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967," President Assad said.

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