From Mon Jun 14 19:15:10 2004
Date: Sun, 6 Jun 2004 11:43:38 -0500 (CDT)
From: Gershon Baskin <>
Subject: [IPCRI-News-Service] Shmuel Bar: The Arab Summit—Between the
Article: 181603
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

The Arab Summit—Between the Lines

By Shmuel Bar, Access|Middleeast exclusive, 25 May 2004, 12:00 AM

Arab solidarity has always been more honored in the breach than in the observance. The two sessions of last weekend's Arab League Summit in Tunis only served to underscore this truth.

The summit ended with an attempt to present a fagade of Arab solidarity against a common threat: the American demand for reforms in the Arab world. The absence of 12 out of the 22 heads of State and early departure of four others before the final communiqui emphasized however, the bitter truth behind the appeal of Secretary General Amr Mussa on the first day of the summit to prevent the decline of the League.

Despite Egyptian and Jordanian attempts to present relatively moderate positions on the Israel-Palestinian situation, the Arab consensus watered down the drafts.

On the eve of the summit Jordan and Egypt put forward papers on reform and the peace process, including an unambiguous call to cease terrorism against civilians on both sides. The Jordanian paper called for an Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands (no mention of the 1967 borders), the establishment of a Palestinian state on Palestinian national soil (i.e. not in Jordan), and a solution to the refugee problem based upon UN Resolution 194 (no mention of the refusal for settlement of refugees in Arab countries). In return, the paper proposed collective security guarantees by all Arab states in the region to Israel, signing of a peace treaty, and normalization of relations between all Arab countries and Israel. The paper further calls for a lasting and comprehensive truce on the Palestinian front and states that all operations targeting civilians from both sides should cease.

The Jordanian and Egyptian papers were unable to break through the Arab consensus, which includes Syria and its vassal-state Lebanon. The result was, in the best tradition of Arab summits, a constructively ambiguous textual consensus: pro-Western regimes will be able to present it as a step forward in the direction of the US demands; whereas others will be able to claim that it represents no change in the traditional Arab position.

The Palestinian presence at the summit only served to emphasize the decline in the status of the Palestinian leadership. Over the years, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat had enjoyed primacy in formulating all resolutions on the Palestinian problem, first as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization as sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and then as the head of the PA as the Palestinians' legitimate leadership.

At the Tunis summit, however, neither he nor the Palestinian delegation had any real influence. Headed by the pro-Syrian PLO foreign minister Farouk Kaddumi, the delegation represented the fossil of the old PLO with the participation, for the first time in years, of the pro-Syrian dissident groups: Ahmad Jibrils PFLP/GC, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The only concrete Palestinian proposal financial support for the Palestinians was totally disregarded by the summit.

The attitude of the Arab leaders towards the Palestinian representatives was, doubtlessly, affected by the dissonance of the Palestinian chorus. While Arafat fumed against Jordans King Abdullah (for having suggested that he retire), a senior Palestinian leader considered close to Arafat met with the Jordanians and Arab leaders in North Africa, and supported a revival of the Jordanian-Palestinian Confederation. The Palestinians, he indicated, are too weak to make strategic decisions; they need the support of Jordan and of the Arab leaders to impose decisions on them and allow them to accept them in the name of Arab solidarity. The Arab leaders did not pick up the gauntlet.

The summit was, first and foremost an Arab response to the American challenge. After the failure of the previous session of the summit in Tunis to reach agreement on the issue of reform and democratization, US diplomats labored in Arab capitals to mobilize support for moderate resolutions on four main issues: political reforms and democratization; the peace process; Iraq; and condemnation of all forms of terrorism.

The issue of political reform was the main challenge. The Arab leaders had to find a formula, which would be seen as forthcoming by the United States and Europe, but would not commit them to any real change in the power structure of their countries. The result was a 13-point document on development, modernization and reform.

The document paid lip service to the American demands for democracy, but coupled the western concept with the Islamic term shura (consultation), i.e. the willingness of the leaders to listen to the public, but not necessarily to take its advice. It focused on raising the standard of living, supporting economic growth and the private sector, expanding the role of women, and respect for human rights and freedom of expression. The plan will be presented by an Arab delegation to the G8. However, the summit declaration made it clear that reform and movement towards democracy in the Arab world are contingent on the solution of the Palestinian problem.

The US effort did not fare much better with the peace process. The Americans hoped that the summit would leave the door open for pragmatic cooperation on the disengagement plan and moderate the criticism of the Bush declaration on refugees and future borders. The communiqui reiterated support for the Saudi Peace Plan and the Road Map, but rejected any change to the terms of reference of the process (i.e. unilateral disengagement, the Bush-Sharon declaration).

The summit called for a just solution of the Palestinian refugee problem according to UN resolution 194 (the right of return), but rejected all forms of Palestinian patriation in the Arab countries. This position opposed ideas for solving (in Arab terminology liquidating) the refugee problem such as the Geneva Accord, the Ayalon-Nusseibeh formula and the Bush declaration. It reflects the interests of Syria and Lebanon on one hand (both with large disenfranchised refugee communities) and of Arafat, on the other hand.

The demand for a clear position against terrorism was central to the US effort. The resolution on terrorism in the Western press was widely quoted as an implied condemnation of terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. However, this interpretation is problematic at best. The communiqui condemns all Israeli military operations in the Palestinian and Arab territories as well as operations that target civilians without distinction and operations against the Palestinian leaders which will only lead to violence... The Lebanese delegation had attempted to strike the phrase without distinction, realizing that it would be interpreted as relating to attacks against Israelis (as well).

The compromise was the reiteration in various parts of the document of the distinction between terrorism against civilians and the legitimate right of peoples to resist occupation and the call for an international conference to define terrorism in this sense. The constructive ambiguity of the formula will allow pro-western regimes to claim that the Arab consensus has denounced terrorism against Israeli civilians, while Syria, Lebanon and others will be able to read the resolution according to their own interpretation.

Notwithstanding, the summit can be seen as a relative success for the standing of the United States in the Arab world. The summit took place at a time of growing civilian casualties and chaos in Iraq, American economic sanctions on Syria and an Israeli campaign in Gaza, widely perceived in the Arab world as having given Israel a green light for the attack. Under these circumstances, it can be said that the criticism of the United States was low key.