International Papers

Tunis Envy

What’s really behind the cancellation of the Arab League summit?

Most of the time, Arab states shroud their quarrels in the counterfeit rhetoric of unity. However, as yesterday’s last-minute cancellation of the Arab League summit in Tunis showed, it’s tough to play that game when it comes time to make good on the speechifying.

The decision by Tunisia to cancel the two-day conference, scheduled to begin today, was the top story in virtually all the Arab world’s dailies. Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star headlined its story “Summit Postponement Reflects Regional Disarray.” In its headline, Saudi Arabia’s daily Al-Riyadh highlighted, “Arab Condemnation of the Tunisian Decision,” and added, “Egypt Proposes Hosting the Summit.” Lebanon’s Al-Anwar provided more information on the Egyptian move in a banner headline, saying, “Contacts Are Taking Place To Hold the Summit in Cairo on April 16, Tunisia Rejects Its Transfer.” However, the Egyptian-Tunisian disagreement on where a new summit would be held (if one is held at all) was merely a coda to more profound differences between the Arab states on such issues as Arab reform and democratization, the Arab-Israeli peace plan endorsed by the Arab states at the Beirut summit of March 2002, internal reform of the Arab League, and various other topics.

The Tunisians wrapped themselves in verbal ambiguity. The Daily Star cited a Tunisian Foreign Ministry official saying the postponement was “due mainly to the deep divergent views on issues of substance and crucial choices closely connected to the aspirations of Arab citizens and the future of the Arab nation.” Decoded, that appeared to mean a Tunisian stance on reform had been rejected. In the run-up to the summit, Arab states were divided over how to address a U.S. regional reform project known as the Greater Middle East Initiative, which is to be presented to the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Ga., in June (though it’s still unclear in what format). The Arabs, ever prickly about reform, clashed over how to respond to the document, which was leaked to the London-based daily Al-Hayat in February (by Germany, European diplomats quietly allege, to better scuttle the plan). Tunisia—no doubt to deflect American attention away from its own splendid autocrat, President Zine al-Abedin bin Ali—was among those states that wanted to address the U.S. plan in some detail. One theory has it that this was rejected by a group of other states, prompting the Tunisians to pull the summit plug—a step allegedly made easier by the fact that several key Arab leaders had decided not to travel to Tunis, irking bin Ali.

Lebanon’s Al-Safir, however, said that the real reasons for the postponement remained “murky.” It also mentioned the possible April 16 summit in Cairo, quoting the Egyptians as saying that “a number of Arab leaders expressed support for [the initiative].” (Indeed, Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported on its Web site Monday that six Arab states had agreed to attend a Cairo summit.) This is bound to provoke more problems, however. As Al-Hayat observed, there is the danger of a split in the Arab League, “especially if North African states choose to show solidarity with Tunisia, after many states backed the Egyptian position.”

As Arab cohesion fell to pieces, two news items raised questions about escalating Hezbollah involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One was a statement in Beirut by the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, at a rally for assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin (as quoted in Israel’s daily Maariv) to the effect that: “I say to the Hamas leadership, from now on view Hezbollah members as members and soldiers of Hamas.”

While the statement may not have been surprising, given Hezbollah’s history or the fact that Israel last week announced it would target Nasrallah, it did take on more meaning in light of a commentary in Sunday’s edition of Ha’aretz by the paper’s military correspondent, Ze’ev Schiff. Citing Israeli intelligence sources, he wrote that Hezbollah had a hand in the suicide bombings by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades at the port of Ashdod on March 14. According to Schiff, “Hezbollah financing was behind the [attacks]. … The Lebanese-based Shi’ite organization was also involved in choosing the site, which is considered a prime target.” While noting that the Lebanese party has penetrated Palestinian cells in the West Bank, its activities in Gaza, he wrote, were “of low intensity” in comparison. The question is now whether Nasrallah’s Beirut statement, made in the presence of a leading Hamas official, signaled an intensification of Hezbollah’s military efforts in Israel and Palestinian areas.