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Cautious optimism in Arab summit resolving disputes

27 March, 2007

Arab summit in Riyadh could give a small push to resolve some of the numerous conflicts and crises in the region.
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THIS year's Arab summit in Riyadh on March 28 and 29 looks somewhat more promising than some of its ineffectual predecessors. It might actually give a small push to resolving some of the numerous conflicts and crises in the region _ in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Darfur and in the deadlocked Arab-Israeli peace process.


The main reason for cautious optimism about the Riyadh summit is that Saudi Arabia is putting real muscle behind its diplomacy. No one dares offend Saudi Arabia, the region's leading power-broker, not even Israel or the United States.

The summit will primarily be an occasion to resolve disputes between Arab leaders and show the world a united front. Syria's President Bashar Al Assad is expected to make his peace with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz and with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, with both of whom he has been on notoriously cool terms.

But the crisis in Lebanon remains a serious point of contention between Arab leaders. Syria resents Saudi and Arab League intervention in that country, which it feels should lie within its sphere of influence and would like to be given a free hand to resolve the crisis on its own terms.

In the meantime, Lebanese politicians continue to squabble over who should represent them at the summit. A centrepiece of the summit is expected to be the re-launch of the Arab Peace Initiative first proposed five years ago by King (then Crown Prince) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and endorsed at the Beirut Arab summit of March 2002.

It offered Israel peace and normal relations with all 22 members of the Arab League if it withdrew to its 1967 borders and accepted a "just and agreed" settlement of the Palestine refugee problem.

The Riyadh summit is expected to renew its invitation to Israel to negotiate a durable peace on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. But hopes of a breakthrough are slender.

Neither the US nor Israel is particularly keen on the Arab Peace Initiative, even if they have not dismissed it out of hand. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even went so far as to say that, although several of its clauses were unacceptable, the Initiative could provide a suitable basis for contacts with Arab moderates.

Such a statement is pretty meaningless, however, and was probably uttered to pre-empt any pressure on Israel from the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to negotiate seriously with Palestine National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The truth is that Olmert is far from ready to embark on wide-ranging negotiations with the Palestinians, still less with the Arabs as a whole. Assailed on all sides by his critics, with his popularity at rock bottom, he is fighting for his political life.

He may not be in office very much longer. He has, in any event, refused all contact with the new Palestinian national unity government because it includes Hamas _ a position in a flagrant contradiction with his verbal welcome for the Arab peace plan.

Rice who is on her ninth visit to the region is focusing her efforts on the more modest goal of promoting an Olmert-Abbas dialogue, rather than pushing for a global Arab-Israeli settlement. Departing a fraction from the Israeli position of a total boycott of the Palestinian government, she has expressed a readiness to talk to its non-Hamas members.

"I think it is extremely important," she told a US House of Representatives subcommittee last week, "to show American commitment to a political horizon so that the Palestinian people can see that their future rests with moderate forces like Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), not with those forces that are extreme".

In other words she seems to be seeking to split the new Palestinian national unity government, which is hardly a constructive policy.

She was to meet the foreign ministers of the so-called Arab Quartet _ Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates _ at Aswan in Upper Egypt yesterday. They were to seek to test how far she was prepared to go to press Israel to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative. Her real ambition seems to be to rally Arab "moderates" against Iran.

Quite apart from Saudi Arabia's active diplomacy, this year's Arab League summit is important because it has attracted a good deal of international attention.

The region is in deep crisis _ with its epicentre in Iraq _ and everyone knows it. Ban Ki-moon, the new United Nations Secretary-General, is to put in an appearance at the summit, part of a 10-day visit of the region to familiarise himself with its problems.

It will take him to the Occupied Palestinian territories, to Cairo and Beirut. In Iraq last week, he had an unnerving first hand experience of violence when a rocket landed in the Green Zone close to where he was speaking.

He might be well advised to urge the Israelis _ and Olmert in particular _ to engage in negotiations with the Arabs as the best way to calm passions in the region and even to save Olmert himself from political oblivion.


Courtesy - Patrick Seale

Patrick is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

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