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Middle East: Arab Leaders To Seek Unity At Beirut Summit

Arab leaders are due to meet this week at a summit to focus on a Saudi peace proposal for the Mideast and regional reaction to U.S. calls for tougher action on Iraq. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks ahead to the two-day meeting, which begins in Beirut on 27 March.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As Arab leaders prepare to meet on 27 March in Beirut, they will be seeking to take a unified stand on two highly divisive issues.

The first issue -- and the one expected to dominate the two-day summit -- is how to revive the Mideast peace process. Specifically, they will be discussing a recent Saudi proposal to exchange an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land for Arab recognition of the Jewish state and "normal peaceful relations."

The leaders are due to vote on adopting the Saudi plan at the summit, but first they may have to bridge deep differences over how to define many of its terms.

Until now, the proposal has been deliberately vague in order to gain widespread Arab and international support for reviving a "land-for-peace" formula as the basis for Israeli-Arab talks.

But different Arab states are likely to show different levels of flexibility over whether they regard an Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in 1967 as an absolute condition or just a starting point for negotiations. The question of flexibility is important, because a literal interpretation of the Saudi proposal would demand withdrawals from more land than Israel has ever been willing to consider.

The Saudi proposal contains other potentially divisive aspects, which the Arab leaders may or may not try to bridge in Beirut.

One is the question of how much various Arab states would offer Israel in the way of normal political and economic relations as part of a peace deal.

Another is deciding on how to turn the Saudi proposal's call for a "just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees into a firm negotiating point. Possible solutions range from demanding their repatriation to Israel to permitting them to remain in neighboring states with Israeli financial compensation.

Analysts say the problem for the Arab leaders in Beirut will be to find a way to maintain their current broad support for reviving the peace process without being driven apart by such details.

Frederick Tanner, a regional specialist at the Geneva Center for Security Policy in Switzerland, explains the challenge.

"All these states have a different kind of relationship with Israel. If you take Iraq, which I think will have as much of a voice as other Arab states with regard to this, [Baghdad] has a different [hostile] view from, let's say, Morocco, which has always been traditionally very friendly towards Israel. [Alternatively, there is] Egypt, which, of course, has a peace agreement [with Israel]."

Tanner predicts that the leaders at the summit will seek to reach a basic accord on the Saudi proposal while -- as much as possible -- leaving the tough work of defining its precise conditions for later. That would meet their desire to restart the peace process at a time when Israel-Palestinian violence is at crisis levels, without immediately binding the individual Arab states to a single negotiating position.

Tanner says, "We have a very diverse group of countries which are unified probably only by the common denominator of supporting the Palestinian struggle right now. They will definitely not come up with a clear-cut operational agreement, but we will probably see here [the adoption of] a kind of framework agreement which leaves the tough part for later."

As Arab leaders prepare to tackle the Mideast peace process, it remains unclear if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be permitted by the Israeli government to attend.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is reported to have conditioned any Arafat attendance on first achieving an agreement on an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has recommended that Arafat be permitted to go to Beirut, but added that the Palestinian leader has yet to meet U.S. demands for curbing violence.

Along with the Mideast peace process, the Arab summit is expected to focus on regional reaction to recent U.S. calls for a tougher policy against Iraq. Washington has repeatedly said it is considering all options for removing the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs. The options reportedly range from increasing the political pressure to readmit weapons inspectors to U.S.-led military operations to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Analysts say the Arab leaders are keen to clearly express their position on Iraq in the wake of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's recent visit to the region to build support against Baghdad. During Cheney's tour, key Arab allies of the U.S. publicly warned against military action, with Egypt offering instead to pressure Iraq politically to cooperate with UN arms monitoring.

But Tanner says the Arab leaders are likely to have difficulty in agreeing on how strong a statement of opposition to U.S. military strikes they should make in Beirut. The reason is that they each will have to separately weigh their relations with Washington against their publics' hostility to any outside attack on an Arab state.

Tanner continues, "We will see a statement on [U.S. military action against Iraq]. But the question is going to be how strong the words will be, how explicit a refusal of any kind of possibility of U.S. intervention in Iraq will come out of this meeting."

The analyst says he expects any final statement on Iraq to be sufficiently vague that it leaves Washington with room to pursue tough action against Iraq while publicly underlining the leaders' concern over any use of military force.

"I think the [final summit] document will give the United States, in final account, still some room for the U.S. to pursue its anti-Iraq policy, but I am sure in terms of rhetoric there will be very strong condemnations in general terms of any kind of interference or intervention into the internal affairs of Arab states."

Iraq itself has said it will press for the summit to issue a call for ending the 11-year-old sanctions regime against it. But states such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- which have no diplomatic relations with Baghdad -- are certain to reject that, while calling for the summit instead to repeat most Arab states' demands that Baghdad first comply with all UN resolutions first.

Ahead of the summit, some analysts have suggested that Arab leaders may link the Mideast peace process and the Iraqi crisis as they choose their wording for statements on each issue. The linkage could take the form of softening the terms of any statement opposing U.S. military action against Iraq in order not to risk losing vital U.S. support for a push to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, rejected that sort of linkage last week, saying he expects no quid pro quo in the summit's proceedings.

He told Britain's "Financial Times" on 22 March: "I don't see any linkage. The Arab-Israeli conflict is one thing. The Iraq-Kuwait conflict is a different one."