23 March 2005 -- Arab leaders in Algiers showed no sign of changing their stance toward Israel -- or embracing American calls for democratic reforms.
Thirteen of the 22 Arab League leaders attended the first day of the summit yesterday. It is set to conclude today with the formal relaunch of the Arab League's 2002 peace plan offering Israel normal diplomatic relations in return for the Jewish state's withdrawal to its 1967 borders.
Currently, Jordan and Egypt are the only Arab nations with ambassadors in Israel.
Israel has repeatedly rejected the proposal, reiterating on 21 March that there should be no preconditions to establishing relations with Arab countries. The U.S. State Department said yesterday that it was unclear what the plan could accomplish in its current form.
Indeed, rather than suggesting a break from the past, the tone in Algiers did not differ much from that of previous Arab League summits, as comments by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika suggested.
"The Israelis' continuous killing and refusal of a comprehensive and lasting peace, which the Arab world is calling for, requires from us to fully support the Palestinian people." -- Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika
"The Israelis' continuous killing and refusal of a comprehensive and lasting peace, which the Arab world is calling for, requires from us to fully support the Palestinian people," he said.
And if Washington was hoping for more positive feedback from Algiers to its plans to spread democracy in the Middle East, the message from the Arab League was anything but welcoming.
The issue was not formally discussed at the summit, but Bouteflika said Arab nations will only reform at their own pace and that "reforms must not be imposed" on the region.
"We are in the process of reform, and we've already started the reform, and if we are talking about a new global strategy, we will be committed to our Arab culture and unity," he said.
Turi Munthe is an analyst with London's Royal United Services Institute. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said Arab leaders were "scared" of U.S. calls for democratic reform and rising public turmoil in countries like Lebanon and Iraq.
"They're not ignoring changes in their backyard," Munthe says. "They're very aware of them; they're very frightened of them. What they're trying to work out is how to keep, somehow, control. A lot of the politics in the region are [influencing the agenda of the Algiers summit]. I'm not an apologist for autocracy. But they are concerned about domestic [populations] possibly [getting] chaotic."
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in Algiers yesterday that Syria's president has agreed to present a firm timetable by early April for a full withdrawal of his country's troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon.
Annan met President Bashir al-Assad on the sidelines of the summit and said Assad confirmed his commitment to UN Resolution 1559, which calls for a Syrian withdrawal.
Syria and Lebanon's pro-Syrian government both sought to ensure that the issue was not formally discussed at the summit. Neither country tabled a resolution on Syria's withdrawal, although it was discussed informally.
Lebanon has been the scene of both pro- and anti-Syrian demonstrations since the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February. The Lebanese opposition blames Syria for the killing.
(Compiled from wire reports.)