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Middle East: Arab Summit Avoids Tackling Region's Major Issues

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. (file photo) Leaders from around the Arab world are gathering today in Algiers. But unlike in recent years, the two-day Arab League summit in the Algerian capital is not expected to break new diplomatic ground. Leaders appear intent on relaunching their 3-year-old peace proposal that Israel has already rejected. Meanwhile, other major regional issues -- such as democratization, Iraq, and the situation in Lebanon -- appear unlikely to receive much attention. RFE/RL looks at what, if anything, the Arab summit is likely to accomplish.

Prague, 22 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Algiers summit is taking place against a backdrop of dramatic changes across the Middle East.

In Baghdad, despite the anti-American insurgency, efforts are under way to build Iraq's first democracy after elections in January.

In Lebanon, thousands of people are clamoring for greater democracy and the withdrawal of Syrian troops after three decades.

And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, both sides have reached an uneasy truce as peace efforts intensify following the election of a moderate successor to long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Yet despite the whirlwind of changes, leaders at the two-day Arab League summit are expected to avoid either changing their strategy toward Israel or formally addressing the events that are shaking the Middle East.

"[Arab leaders] are more concerned with their internal issues," says Turi Munthe, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. "They're more concerned with the economics of the region. They're more concerned with bolstering links among themselves. This is not an Arab summit meant to endorse or attack U.S. or Western interference in the region. But it's specifically not meant to endorse it."

Not every Arab leader sees things the same way, of course. In a sign of division, only 14 of 22 Arab leaders are attending the summit. Those not attending include Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, and some other Gulf leaders.

Jordan's King Abdullah won't be there, either. Abdullah is staying away after failing to secure changes to an Arab peace proposal first unveiled at the 2002 Arab League summit in Beirut.

The so-called Beirut initiative offers Israel peace and normal relations with more than 21 Arab countries in return for withdrawal to the borders as they stood on the eve of the Middle East War of 1967.

Israel has repeatedly rejected the initiative, saying relations with the Arab world should not depend on a resolution of all problems between Palestinians and Israelis.

Abdullah had sought to simplify the Beirut initiative to send a message of conciliation to Israeli and world public opinion.

Egypt had welcomed his bid. But instead, the plan is to be relaunched in its original form in Algiers.
"Algeria, the country of the martyrs, will not be the venue for normalization [of relations with Israel]." -- Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem

"Algeria, the country of the martyrs, will not be the venue for normalization [of relations with Israel]," Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem said yesterday.

And Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, an Arab nationalist, said Israel did not deserve any further normalization until it changes its policies.

Munthe, however, characterizes the summit participants as "scared" of the 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."

Still, some Arab countries are calling to embrace some of the changes in the region. In particular, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and some Gulf states are seen as seeking to improve relations with Israel, not least for economic reasons.

Other Arab voices say the summit should seriously discuss the idea of democratic reform -- rather than focusing on internal changes to the Cairo-based Arab League, such as creating a new Arab parliament.

A columnist for the Arab daily "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" today criticized the summit for failing to deal with the major issues facing the Middle East.

"What is the benefit of a summit or even the League itself when it hides, waiting for each crisis to end by itself," writes columnist Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid. "It is ridiculous that the summit has promised Arabs a big achievement, an Arab parliament. Is this what Arabs want? Another symbolic chatting council?"