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Middle East: Arab Summit Endorses Saudi Peace Plan, Rejects U.S. Force Against Iraq

The Arab League summit in Beirut wrapped up today with unanimous endorsement of a Saudi initiative to revive Israeli-Arab peace talks around a land-for-peace formula. The summit also welcomed an agreement between Iraq and Kuwait that could improve their relations for the first time since the Gulf crisis of 1990.

Prague, 28 March 2002 (RE/RL) -- The Arab League today restored order to what mostly had been a chaotic two-day summit in Beirut by unanimously endorsing a Saudi proposal for restarting the Mideast peace process.

The endorsement followed a landmark speech yesterday by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Abdullah appealed to the league's 21 member states, plus the Palestinian Authority, to return to a land-for-peace formula as the basis for new Israeli-Arab talks.

Abdullah, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, has proposed exchanging Israeli withdrawals from all Arab land captured in 1967 for Arab recognition of the Jewish state and the restoration of normal and peaceful relations.

Describing his plan yesterday in words partly addressed to the Israeli public, Abdullah said: "I will add to this by saying to the Israeli people that if their government stopped its methods of violence and destruction and agreed to real peace, we would not hesitate to accept that Israel should live in peace with the rest of the nations in the region. And we believe in carrying arms in self-defense and resistance to occupation. However, we also believe in peace, if it comes on the basis of justice, putting an end to occupation."

The unanimous endorsement leaves open the question of how Arab states will define key aspects of the Saudi proposal, including the degree of flexibility it leaves individual countries in dealing with Israel.

This degree of flexibility remains unclear following today's statement, which endorsed the Saudi demand for Israeli withdrawals to 1967 borders but did not indicate whether that demand is negotiable. A withdrawal from all the land it captured in 1967 would require Israel to give up more land than it has ever been willing to consider.

Another aspect of the Saudi proposal discussed prior to the endorsement is how much various Arab states would be willing to offer Israel in the way of normal political and economic relations. Still another is what various Arab states would regard as a fulfillment of the Saudi call for a "just solution" to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

How much the summit resolution resolves any of these questions is likely to emerge in the hours ahead as Arab officials comment in greater detail on their interpretations of their endorsements. Earlier today, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the Saudi initiative "a good first step, but not yet a workable plan."

Most Arab states had previously expressed support for the Saudi land-for-peace formula, making today's endorsement widely expected. Prior to today's decision, the two-day summit had mostly been dominated by quarrels among several leaders, which left doubts about what progress was being made.

Those disputes broke out publicly yesterday, the first day of the proceedings, when summit host Lebanon blocked the absent Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat from addressing the gathering via satellite.

Lebanon gave no reason for refusing Arafat, who did not attend the summit for fear Israel would not allow him to return to the Palestinian territories. But many reporters present attributed the move to long-standing enmities between Damascus -- a key power broker in Lebanon -- and the Palestinian leader. The flap was later resolved by having Arafat's remarks entered in writing into the summit proceedings.

Other problems at the summit included the fact that almost half of the league's heads of state stayed away from the meeting voluntarily. These included Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah. Neither of the leaders of these two key U.S. allies gave reasons for his absence, but both were subjects of criticism at the summit because of their peace treaties with Israel.

Even as the Beirut summit focused on the Saudi peace proposal, it also devoted much attention to the Iraqi crisis and Arab fears of a new U.S. military campaign against Baghdad. Those fears prompted many Arab leaders to warn in recent weeks that a U.S. attack on Iraq would endanger regional stability. The statements came as Washington publicly said it regards military action as only one of several options -- including political and diplomatic ones -- for dealing with Iraq.

Today, the summit adopted a resolution reiterating those concerns by stating Arab leaders' "total rejection of any attack on an Arab country, particularly Iraq." The resolution also called for the lifting of UN sanctions imposed for Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait while stressing the need to respect all UN resolutions.

The summit statement emphasized the Arab world wants to see political solutions to the Iraq crisis within the UN framework. That approach would be in line with the position of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called on Baghdad yesterday to cooperate peacefully to solve the crisis over arms inspections.

"I appeal to the Iraqi leadership once again, for the sake of the Iraqi people and the sake of the region, to comply without delay with all relevant [UN] resolutions. The sooner they accept that there is no other path to ending the sanctions regime and relieving the suffering of the Iraqi people, the sooner this problem will be resolved."

Existing UN resolutions on Iraq call for sanctions to be lifted when Baghdad demonstrates, by allowing arms inspections, that it has no more weapons of mass destruction. Iraq has barred UN weapons monitors from Iraq for more than three years. Iraq and the UN recently restarted discussions on a wide range of issues -- including arms inspections -- after a one-year interruption. The two sides are due to meet again next month.

The Arab summit today also welcomed an agreement between Iraq and Kuwait that could improve relations for the first time since Baghdad invaded the emirate in 1990.

The summit's closing statement said that "Arab leaders welcome Iraq's confirmation to respect the independence, sovereignty and security of the state of Kuwait, and guarantee its safety and unity of its land to avoid anything that might cause a repetition of what happened in 1990."

It remains to be seen whether the signing of an Iraqi-Kuwaiti understanding more than a decade after the 1991 Gulf War will further strengthen Arab leaders' mounting public resistance to any use of American force against Iraq.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, who traveled throughout the Mideast earlier this month to build support for a tougher Iraq policy, said he is satisfied with the results of his private meetings with Arab heads-of-state. U.S. officials have also hinted that Arab leaders' private support for tougher action against Iraq may be greater than their public statements suggest.