Around the world, expectations are high that this week’s Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon, might actually move the ball in the Arab-Israeli peace process. “Past Arab league summits have tended to be greeted with bored yawns in the West. … The summit that opens in Beirut [Wednesday], however, could be different,” declared Britain’s Independent Tuesday. The meeting would almost certainly have received more attention than past league summits, because it is the first gathering of Arab leaders since Sept. 11 and the fall of the Taliban (last October’s meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Doha, Qatar, included many non-Arab nations), but the main focus is on Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace initiative, which offers normalization of Arab relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967, the recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “right to return” for Palestinian refugees. Lebanon’s Daily Star fretted that if the Saudi plan fails, the region could be plunged into still greater chaos: “If even Riyadh’s intra-Arab influence and prestige are not enough to win over the Jewish state and its backers, how might these possibly be surpassed by another Arab capital in the foreseeable future?”
The Khaleej Times of Dubai said, “While talks on the Palestinian issue at the past Arab summits did not take it any closer to a settlement, there is considerable hope this time that the generally welcomed Saudi proposal to end decades of conflict would animate the debate and win unanimous approval.” The Jordan Times put a different spin on the opportunities offered by Abdullah’s plan: “The Saudi peace initiative offers them a chance to succeed on a front where the Arab record has been less than impressive: international public opinion.” The editorial warned Arabs not to lose this advantage: “The summit should not degenerate into a forum for scoring short-term political gains, the total sum of which will be a loss for the most important cause for millions of Arabs. In Beirut, the Arabs should play politics by objective. The objective is to support the Palestinian people.” Israel’s liberal Ha’aretz said it’s just as important for the Jewish state to support the principles of the plan, since the details are still subject to negotiation: “Objecting to [the Saudi plan], or giving it a cool reception, will leave an impression—even among our friends—that Israel is missing a golden opportunity. Even worse would be an impression that Israel isn’t interested in it at all.”
Several papers noted the large number of no-shows, with 11 of the 22 Arab League heads of state staying home. The Daily Star explained that “the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates are too ill; Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would rather stay at home for obvious reasons; the Libyan leader, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, is ostensibly annoyed that his own suggestions for a collective peace offer to Israel have not been taken seriously; and no explanation has been offered for the absence of the heads of state of Oman, Sudan, Mauritania and Qatar.” Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also stayed away.
The Pan-Arab Al-Quds Al-Arabi said the summit could mark the end of Saudi-Egyptian-Syrian domination of Arab politics. Syria is resentful that its clout has diminished, and Mubarak is angered by the plan because he wasn’t consulted beforehand and feels the Saudis are trying to usurp his role in leading the peace process. The paper said recent pro-intifada demonstrations in several Arab countries showed dissatisfaction not just with the Saudi plan but also with the Riyadh-Cairo-Damascus triangle pushing it. “Arab citizens had expected that triangle, which possesses money (Saudi Arabia), human resources (Egypt), and the closest military forces to the confrontation line (Syria), to respond to Israel’s insults with a strong stance in support of the intifada, not with rhetorical slogans and normalization initiatives.” (Translations courtesy of the Daily Star’s “Arab Press Review.”)
The Israeli papers pored over the summit like Kremlinologists decoding a Soviet-era May Day Parade. Yediot Ahronot observed: “It is possible to distinguish between two main trends in the Arab world ahead of [the] summit—the countries which have signed peace agreements with Israel and which seek to douse the great conflagration, led by Egypt and Jordan, and those countries which are bringing fuel containers to Beirut to pour on the fire so that the entire Middle East goes up in flames, including Iraq, Libya and others.” It said the debate over the Saudi initiative will show the world “who is bent on a relaxation and peace in the region, and who wants escalation and war.” Why did Prince Abdullah offer his plan now? An op-ed in Ha’aretz speculated, “Abdullah’s sudden daring is a sign that he believes an American victory over Saddam Hussein is near, and following it a Pax Americana—between Israel and the Arabs, and in the Gulf. ‘Let Bush win,’ Abdullah is hinting.”