Amid chaos, an olive branch

The Arab summit meeting in Beirut opens in disarray, as Palestinians pull out and key American allies snub the event -- but the Saudi peace plan offers a ray of hope.

By Paul Wachter

Published March 28, 2002 8:47PM (EST)

In a speech Wednesday at the tumultuous opening of the Arab summit meeting, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia offered normal relations with Israel if the Jewish state would withdraw from territories seized after the 1967 war, recognize a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and allow refugees to return.

"Allow me at this point to direct myself to the Israeli people," Prince Abdullah declared, "to say to them that the use of violence, for more than 50 years, has only resulted in more violence and destruction, and that the Israeli people are as far as they have been from security and peace, notwithstanding military superiority and despite efforts to subdue and suppress. Israel, and the world, must understand that peace, and the retention of the occupied Arab territories, are incapable and impossible to reconcile and achieve."

Abdullah also said, "I would further say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and aggression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of the Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region."

Abdullah's proposal, and indeed the entire summit, was almost overwhelmed by a series of disagreements and crucial no-shows. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused to attend, citing Israeli conditions. (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Arafat might not be allowed to return to the territories if he gave an inflammatory speech.) Two key moderates, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah II, were no-shows, with the Egyptian leader saying he refused to attend out of solidarity with Arafat. The non-presence of the two moderate leaders was clearly a slap at the Bush administration for not putting enough pressure on Israel to allow Arafat to attend. And the Palestinian delegates walked out when Lebanon's president inexplicably refused to allow a broadcast.

Despite the upheavals, the prince's proposal took center stage. The plan, which he first floated in an interview with the New York Times last month, reflects what in fact has long been the mainstream Arab position toward Israel and the Palestinians. It does not differ significantly from the two-decade-old Fez Plan, approved unanimously by all 20 Arab states in attendance at the Arab summit in 1982. The Fez plan implied Arab recognition of Israel within its pre-1967 borders and advocated a two-state solution. However, the new proposal is significant both because of its timing, as the semi-war in Israel and the occupied territories enters one of its bloodiest phases ever, and because of Saudi Arabia's stature as the guardian of the two holiest sites in Islam. It is also more explicit in its willingness to recognize Israel.

Abdullah modified his proposal in two significant ways. He added the explosive issue of the Palestinian right of return, a deeply emotional one for both Palestinians and Israelis that has proven to be perhaps the most intractable negotiating point, along with the status of Jerusalem, between the two sides. Palestinians who were among the 700,000 people who were driven out or fled their homes in the 1948 war, and their descendants, have long insisted that they be allowed to return to their ancestral homes. Israelis retort that if the millions of Palestinian refugees actually returned to Israel, the Jewish character of the state would be destroyed. Moreover, in most cases neither the homes nor the villages of the Palestinians still exist in recognizable form.

The prince also changed the wording of his offer on recognition slightly, proffering "normal relations" instead of the more comprehensive "full normalization."

The Saudi proposal was hailed by Arafat from his headquarters in Ramallah in the West Bank. Speaking on the Arabic-language television station Al-Jazeera, in a broadcast not seen by summit participants, Arafat said, "At this summit, this initiative, God willing, will turn into an Arab initiative for the peace of the brave between us and the Israeli people and Jews in the world." Arafat also offered holiday greetings to Jews at the start of the Passover holiday.

The United States also praised Prince Abdullah's initiative. Spokeswoman Claire Buchan hailed his "leadership" and said that President Bush "urges other leaders to build on the crown prince's ideas to address the cause of peace in the troubled region."

Israel, as expected, reacted warily. Officials criticized the term "normal relations" as unacceptably vague; they also rejected the right of return for refugees. In addition, Sharon has long made clear his opposition to full withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Hopes that the Saudi initiative would be accepted by the Arab League were raised when Syria, one of the most hard-line Arab states, gave support to the plan, with some reservations.

If American envoy Anthony Zinni does succeed in hammering out a cease-fire, U.S., Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will have their hands full trying to work out a version of the Saudi plan acceptable to all sides. But for the moment, the fact that any peace plan at all is on the table could be seized as grounds for hope, however distant.

The biggest loser, after the summit's first day, was poor Lebanon. This week's Arab League summit was supposed to bolster the country's reputation, not ruin it. But then, with a single gaffe, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud almost did what even Ariel Sharon couldn't manage to accomplish -- sabotage the summit.

The Palestinian delegation pulled out of the summit after Lahoud, the summit chairman, blocked Arafat from delivering a speech via satellite from his headquarters in Ramallah, where he has been confined for four months.

"I asked the [Palestinian] delegation to withdraw and I told Abu Ammar [Arafat's nom de guerre]," said PLO political chief Farouk Khaddumi, the head of the Palestinian delegation. Calling Lahoud's behavior "unacceptable," Khaddumi added, "It is regrettable because this summit is not Lebanon's but belongs to all Arabs, the resistance and the intifada." Attempts by Arab ministers who tried to convince the Palestinians to return were initially unsuccessful. "It's over," Khaddumi told Al-Jazeera before the beginning of Wednesday's evening session, which the Palestinians did not attend. The delegation reportedly collected its passports at the hotel desk.

Apparently, however, the Palestinians will be back on Thursday, the second and final day of the summit. Still, with 12 of the 22 Arab heads of state declining to attend the conference -- including such regional heavyweights as President Mubarak, King Abdullah and, of course, Arafat himself -- Wednesday's fracas threatened to implode the already fragile summit and, along with it, the Saudi peace proposal.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, and considering the importance of the summit for Lebanon, Lahoud's behavior seems even more bizarre. The conference was supposed to herald the return of Beirut's pre-war image as the "Paris of the Middle East," offering a showcase for its newly reconstructed downtown, luxury hotels and legendary night life. The government had taken great pains to ensure that the summit would be a success.

All of the country's schools were ordered closed for the week, ostensibly to alleviate Beirut's horrible traffic glut but also to prevent unruly student demonstrations. For the duration of the summit, the airport was also shut down. The summit area, several square miles in West Beirut near the waterfront, was cordoned off -- accessible only to those with the right passes -- with long banners draped over the several high-rises that still bear the pockmarks of war. For the past few weeks, on my afternoon jogs, I charted the progress of the preparations, stopping to watch Lebanese soldiers spring from helicopters and rappel down buildings, readying themselves for any foreseeable security problems.

But it wasn't simply the cosmetic alterations in the landscape -- the freshly painted roads, the spruced-up buildings -- that signaled how much the country had invested in the Arab summit. In the weeks before the conference, Syrian President Bashar Assad made his first visit to the country, the first official visit by a Syrian president since the 1940s. If Arafat had come to Beirut, it would have been his first visit since he and thousands of PLO fighters and their families fled Lebanon for Tunisia after the 1982 Israeli invasion. When Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi objected to holding the summit here (citing general security concerns, but really concerned about the threat to his life from Lebanese Shiites who hold him responsible for killing their spiritual leader), the other Arab leaders quickly rallied behind Beirut. (Gadhafi was among the no-shows.)

Indeed, over the last few weeks there was talk in Beirut that the country was gradually returning to its pre-war position of prominence in the Arab world. One local magazine compared the upcoming summit to the last such gathering in Lebanon, the 1956 Arab League summit. In that year, Lebanese President Camille Chamoun presided over the conference, which denounced the Israeli-French-English incursions into Egypt during the Suez crisis. The magazine, Monday Morning, in a representative example of pre-summit fever, predicted: "Those who enjoy historical comparisons may say that as the Beirut summit in 1956 led to the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai, so that of 2002 may be that which forces Sharon to pull out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

Why, then, would Lahoud risk deflating all of these expectations by snubbing the Palestinians? Not counting a lame excuse of "technical difficulties," Lebanese officials have offered two explanations. The first, issued by Lebanese Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh, the summit spokesman, is that Lahoud simply gave preference to speakers in the hall, saving Arafat's speech for later. "There is a certain protocol we had to stick to, but our Palestinian friends wanted Chairman Arafat to speak first," Salameh said. But according to Khaddumi, Arafat was scheduled to speak right after Syrian President Bashar Assad. (And indeed, Al-Jazeera showed Arafat impatiently waiting to get the go-ahead from Beirut.) Majdi Khaldi, another member of the Palestinian delegation, complained that other speakers were moved up ahead of Arafat. "Then we found that they didn't carry out what they promised us. We decided to leave and we left," Khaldi said.

The second explanation comes from the Lebanese president himself. At the opening of Wednesday's evening session Lahoud said that Arafat's speech was not aired live "to avoid Israeli intercepts and interferences with the speech." Just what kind of "interferences" Lahoud was referring to was unclear. Could the Lebanese president have been worried that Sharon, imitating one of the Joker's pranks in "Batman," would cut into Arafat's speech and address the Arab League directly?

Neither of these explanations is credible. To attempt to understand Lahoud's behavior, it's necessary to understand the man himself and, even more importantly, his Syrian masters.

In 1998, Lebanon's parliament elected General Emile Lahoud to the presidency. But, as in all important political matters in Lebanon, the real power behind Lahoud's election was Syria, which since the end of Lebanon's civil war in 1991 has run Lebanon like a satellite state. Lahoud was not known for his political skills. Nor, unlike many Christian leaders (under the Lebanese sectarian political system, the president is always a Christian), did he play a significant role in the country's 17-year-long civil war. What Lahoud offered was a good relationship with Syrian security forces in Lebanon and a reputation for not tolerating corruption. Lahoud has allowed Lebanon's prime minister, billionaire Rafik Hariri, to preside over economic matters, while he handles security affairs. For Syria, which keeps 35,000 troops in Lebanon, Lahoud is the quintessential yes man.

One possible explanation for Lahoud's gaffe on Wednesday is simply that he didn't know what he was doing. As one of my colleagues screamed after the Palestinian withdrawal: "We have a lot of smart politicians in this country, why do we have to have this idiot for president?"

I met the president once -- a brief hello and handshake a couple of summers ago, at a swanky country club in the northern Christian suburbs of Beirut. During the summer -- which stretches from April to October in Lebanon -- Lahoud could often be found poolside puffing a cigar, shirtless and sporting a dark tan, surrounded by friends and bodyguards. Many of Lebanon's leaders have been assassinated (only three months ago a car bomb claimed former Christian warlord Elie Hobeika), so there's something telling in the joke around town about how Lahoud might meet his end: "The only thing that will kill President Lahoud is skin cancer."

But while Lahoud may not be the most engaged or intelligent of Lebanese politicians, he's smart enough to look to Damascus before making any significant political decisions. And since he has demonstrated no independence from Syria before, it is certainly a possibility that in snubbing Arafat, Lahoud was acting at Syria's behest. In fact, according to one of the senior staff members of the Lebanese delegation, that's exactly what happened Wednesday morning.

"It's pretty obvious that Syria engineered the whole affair," said the staff member, who for obvious reasons wanted to remain anonymous. Of all the Arab countries, with the possible exception of Iraq and Libya, Syria has been the most reluctant to sign on to the Saudi peace initiative. This may seem strange, since as early as 1993, in a long interview with British journalist Patrick Seale, Syrian President Hafez Assad offered Israel "full peace for full withdrawal" -- referring to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory Israel has occupied since 1967 and annexed in 1981, over the strong protests of the United States. But "full peace" never explicitly meant either "full normalization," which is what the Saudi proposal originally called for, or even the slightly weaker current formulation "normal relations." And Syria has always resisted normalization, preferring to keep it as an additional bargaining chip after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Even before the Palestinian walkout on Wednesday, Syria (and Lebanon) had made their displeasure with the Saudi peace plan clear. "I propose the breaking off of Arab countries' relations with Israel until the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace, with the total [Israeli] withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967," Bashar Assad told the summit. "If we succumb to this denigrating trade-off, we will be reneging on the thousands of fallen martyrs, ultimately losing our souls and our cause," said Lahoud.

"The Syrians wanted to torpedo the peace plan, and to make sure President Assad set the tone for the summit," the Lebanese official said. "If it irked the Palestinians then so be it. What's more, if it irked the Lebanese [who would be embarrassed by seeing their own president sabotage the Beirut summit] then so be it. If the summit collapses, so be it." After all, in the past, Syria has had no qualms about putting its own national interests ahead of Lebanon's -- that's the very essence of the Syrian occupation.

But the Lebanese-Syrian gambit -- if that's what it was -- seems to have been neither wise nor effective. Leaving aside the fact that it was strange, to say the least, for the Syrians/Lebanese to be enraging the very people whose rights they loudly claimed to be defending, the move appears to have backfired. After the walkout, other Arab countries were quick to offer their solidarity to the Palestinians. The United Arab Emirates recalled its top officials, lowering the profile of its delegation. After Saudi delegates rushed Saudi Crown Prince Nawaf bin Abdul Aziz out of the summit hall, there were (unfounded) rumors that the Saudis were pulling out. (The prince had suffered a brain hemorrhage. Later in the day, after an operation, he was said to be in stable condition.) Eventually, Prime Minister Hariri, a close Saudi ally, announced that the Palestinians would return Thursday, and Lahoud, forced to eat crow, said Arafat's speech would be broadcast to the delegates. The Arab summit, despite many blows, would go on.

It also remains unclear what will become of the Saudi peace plan. It may well pass, along with another statement in which the Arab League pledges its support of the Palestinian uprising against Israel. Wednesday's suicide attack, which killed at least 15 Israelis, can only add to the growing consensus that without decisive U.S. intervention the Arab-Israeli conflict is unlikely to end soon -- no matter what happens in Beirut.

But this doesn't mean the summit no longer matters. Earlier on Wednesday, before the Netanya suicide bombing, I spoke with Farid El-Khazen, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. "An Arab agreement won't matter now, with the U.S. not involved and Sharon in power. And there is no sign that the violence in Israel-Palestine is abating," he said. "But what's important is the future. The peace initiative, if endorsed, cannot be withdrawn. It's an important step forward which can be used at an opportune time."

Paul Wachter

Paul Wachter is pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies at the American University in Beirut.

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