It is not often that one sees a consensus among Arab states on any issue, but the two-day Arab summit held in Beirut on March 27 and 28 unanimously endorsed a Saudi-inspired plan for Middle East ‘peace’, offering Israel normal ties and full peace in return for complete withdrawal from the Arab lands it occupied in the June 1967 war and recognition of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
However, harmony among the divided Arab leaders, who habitually take umbrage at each other over trivial matters, remained elusive. The summit was beset by petty squabbles, boycotts and threats of walkouts, and teetered repeatedly toward fiasco. More than half of the heads of state of the 22 Arab League countries failed to show up for the ‘historic’ summit because of bad health, security considerations, wounded ego or American pressure. King Abdullah II of Jordan and president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt decided at the last moment not to make the short trips from Jordan and Egypt respectively. Lebanon’s refusal to broadcast a live address to Arab leaders by Palestine National Authority president Yasser Arafat, who was prevented by Israel from attending, prompted a temporary Palestinian walkout and threats to follow suit by several Gulf Arab delegations. The most commonly cited explanation for Mubarak’s absence was his failure to get the US to persuade Israel to allow Arafat to attend the conference. This compounded an earlier affront to Cairo and its role as a “regional peace broker” when the Saudis failed to consult Mubarak before making their initiative public.
A ‘Beirut Declaration’ embraced the plan that crown prince Abdullah bin Abd al-’Aziz had initially proposed in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in February. The statement emphasized that Israel must accept a Palestinian state and agree to a “fair solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, in keeping with UN resolution 194 (1949) that calls for their return to their homes or for compensation. The “fair solution” clause is a deliberately vague clause that came about as a result of intense haggling over the wording of a reference to the plight of Palestinian refugees, which threatened to derail the summit. It was the result of Jordanian insistence on watering down a demand calling clearly for the refugees’ “right of return.” The phrase “fair solution” leaves room for solutions other than the right of return, although that is guaranteed by international humanitarian law.
In return the Arab countries would “consider the Israeli-Arab conflict over and enter into a peaceful agreement with Israel [and] establish normal relations with Israel in the context of this comprehensive peace.” Again the “normal relations” clause was a watered-down version of an offer of “total normalization” that was reportedly on the broader original version of the initiative. Syria has been at the forefront of opposition to normalization with the Jewish state. The Syrian position is based on the fact that “normalization” as a term has neither a definition in international law nor a place in diplomatic parlance. In an interview with a Lebanese English-language daily on the eve of the summit, Syrian information minister Adnan Omran argued that the term “normalization” is “a rhetorical word and an Israeli invention,” adding that in international law “there are two terms: ending the state of war between the parties in a conflict, and enabling the establishment of a state of peace” (The Daily Star, March 26, 2002).
Interestingly the Arab leaders, gathering amid the pomp and lavishness of the Phoenicia Inter-Continental Hotel to discuss the fate of the Palestinian refugees, were only a stone’s throw away from the various refugee-camps in and around Beirut. Yet not one visited any of these dilapidated camps to gauge the opinions of the Palestinian refugees about their plight and how to end it.
The summit laid to rest speculations about any kind of official Arab support for a possible US attack on Iraq. The Beirut Declaration ushered in a thaw in relations between Gulf War foes Iraq on the one side, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on the other. It called for lifting the UN economic sanctions regime against Baghdad, which has been in place since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. It also rejected the prospect of an American attack on Iraq, saying: “We stress our total rejection of any attack on Iraq.” The statement “welcomed Iraq’s confirmation to respect the independence, sovereignty and security of the state of Kuwait and guarantee its safety and unity to avoid anything that might cause a repetition of what happened in 1990.” It also called on Iraq and Kuwait to cooperate in seeking quick solutions to pending issues, such as prisoners of war and the return of properties Iraq captured during its seven-month occupation of Kuwait (1990-91). A working document presented earlier by the Iraqi delegation had offered, for the first time since the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, an unequivocal recognition of Kuwait’s “independence” and “sovereignty.”
The summit was also the scene of the first high-level public embrace between crown prince Abdullah and Iraq’s presidential envoy ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, to the applause of the assembled rulers. There were also handshakes between al-Duri and members of the Kuwaiti delegation, headed by foreign minister Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are close US allies and their support would be important for any US military action against Iraq. The US welcomed the Arab leaders’ unanimous endorsement of the Saudi proposal. White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said that president George W Bush viewed the prince’s speech at the summit as a “positive step forward to bringing peace to the region.”
The notion that all Arab states would offer Israel recognition and ‘normal’ relations is the most remarkable element in Abdullah’s plan. The main problem with it is that Israeli leaders have always been unanimous in opposing full withdrawal to the 1967 borders. The Abdullah proposal has been much played up in the media as offering a “new” peace initiative. But in reality there is little “new” in a plan that is mostly old wine in a new bottle. By approving the proposal, the Arab League has brought into the open a semi-official Arab consensus on the Israeli-Arab conflict that had never been spelled out so directly before, on the prospect of recognizing and establishing normal diplomatic relations with Israel. But the shift shows the widening chasm yawning between the Arab governments and their peoples. This was shown by the recent mass demonstrations that took place throughout the Arab world against the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, trade with it, allowing Israeli tourists into Arab countries; the demonstrations also called for the use of force as a means to defend the Palestinian people and to win Arab demands from Israel.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of the summit, Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said: “Now, we have a sharp weapon to influence the international community and pressure Israel. If Israel refuses peace, we will return to violence. We will return to the threat of conflict God knows what happens.”
But Sharon’s incursions into the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority provided an unambiguous rejection of the crown prince’s initiative and of peace altogether. In fact, as the Arab leaders were meeting in Beirut to present a new olive branch to Israel, the Butcher of Sabra and Shatila was making preparations for an all-out offensive on the Palestinians, demonstrating his utter contempt for the Arab leaders and their summit. Curiously, what was absent from all the speeches made at the summit, as well as from the Saudi plan, was any idea of the price Israel could be made to pay if it did not give an encouraging response to the Saudi peace offer. In this, the Beirut summit proved the bankrupt state of the Arab political order and the impotence of its approach to peace, which can only be rivalled by the impotence of its approach to war.
In response to Sharon’s latest orgy of bloodletting, Arab officialdom has taken refuge in verbal denunciations and pledges of support to the Palestinians. But the inaction of the Arab political order says more than all the hollow rhetoric coming from Arab leaders. In one sense, this inaction indicates that the Saudi initiative will be added to the weighty collection of previous peace plans, UN resolutions, proposals, position papers and non-papers that have foundered on the rock of Israeli intransigence. It remains to be seen whether the plan will succeed in achieving its real purpose, that of serving as the linchpin of a public relations offensive to rehabilitate the fraying relations of an increasingly bankrupt and unpopular set of regimes with Washington. As such, the Saudi initiative will enter the annals of history as yet another effort to sacrifice the Palestinians at the altar of an Arab government’s relations with Washington.