Arab leaders endorsed a historic peace initiative Thursday that offers Israel “normal relations” with its Arab neighbors in exchange for land, a viable Palestinian state and a “just solution” for nearly 4 million Palestinian refugees.
But the leadership at the fractious Arab League summit here also loaded up an accompanying declaration with a tirade against the Jewish state, rhetorical support for the Palestinian intifada and--contrary to the peace plan itself--an endorsement of the “right of return” for all refugees.
Israel has consistently objected to such a provision on refugees, saying an influx of that many Palestinians would undermine the viability of the country. On Thursday, an Israeli spokesman said allowing their return “would be committing suicide.”
Arab leaders had hoped that the summit would provide a unique opportunity to unite behind a single position. Instead, the conference was defined by bickering, conflicting agendas and, ultimately, final documents that provided a little something for everyone--from tough talk to peace talk.
Still, coming just one day after the Palestinian delegation walked out in a huff, and after more than half the Arab heads of state failed to show up, adoption of the Saudi-initiated peace plan was hailed by proponents as a sign that the Arab world is unified in its quest for ending the Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Participants said it was extraordinary simply to see Saudi Arabia--guardian of the holiest sites of Islam--acknowledging Israel’s right to exist.
The summit was also buoyed by an apparent rapprochement between Iraq and Kuwait, the fellow Arab League member Baghdad invaded more than a decade ago.
Arab leaders tried to use the Saudi plan to shift the onus onto Israel for moving the peace process forward in a region that this week has seen both proposals for peace and devastating violence.
“If Israel wants security and seeks peace, this is the way to security,” the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said after the summit ended Thursday. “It cannot keep the land and demand peace.”
Israel was muted in its response to the plan’s endorsement. “Generally, we welcome the Saudi peace initiative,” said Gideon Meir, an official with the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “But we were very disappointed that it was diluted, especially by extremist voices who will never accept Israel.”
And he added: “The right of return is a nonstarter for Israel. It would be committing suicide.”
But the Saudi initiative was welcomed by the White House, which has seen its efforts at negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians consistently undermined, most recently by the deadly suicide bombing Wednesday, the first night of the Jewish Passover holiday.
Complete Breakdown at Summit Avoided
The summit, only the second regularly scheduled summit since the group was founded in 1945, had been in danger of a complete breakdown Wednesday.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II were just two of the more than 10 heads of state--plus Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat--who didn’t attend the two-day gathering.
Then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, for reasons that remain unclear, blocked Arafat from addressing the meeting via satellite hookup. The Palestinian delegation withdrew from the conference in protest. After last-minute negotiations--and facing the prospect of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid if the conference failed--the Palestinian delegation returned to the table Thursday.
But while all of the attention was focused on the Lahoud-Palestinian dispute, Iraq and Kuwait may have taken a substantial step toward smoothing over their relationship. The differences go back to 1990, when Iraq invaded the oil-rich Persian Gulf country.
Although the details remain a bit unclear, the Beirut Declaration suggested that Iraq has finally agreed to all of Kuwait’s demands, including an acknowledgment of the tiny emirate’s sovereignty and a promise never to invade again. If the deal sticks--a day earlier, Kuwait had dismissed it as “sweet talk"--it could undermine whatever plans the United States might have for trying to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“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,” the declaration read.
Iraq and another estranged neighbor, Saudi Arabia, made it semiofficial, with a kiss. Izzat Ibrahim, a Hussein deputy, gave Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah a peck on the cheek in front of television cameras, to the applause of the other delegates. Ibrahim also shook hands with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Jabbar al Sabah.
After the meeting, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said that the one issue that has managed to unite all of the Arab leaders is opposition to a military strike against any Arab country--including Iraq. The group is unanimous in its concern that a military strike could destabilize the region.
“Our position that we could not support an attack on Iraq is a unanimous Arab position,” Maher said as he left the Phoenicia Hotel in downtown Beirut.
Although the events of this summit were considered deeply disunited, even by Arab standards, many of the participants felt that persuading the league’s 22 members, including the Palestinian Authority, to endorse the Saudi peace initiative was a breakthrough.
“Sanity has to prevail,” said Adel Jubeir, an advisor to Crown Prince Abdullah. “The Arab world has now put an offer on the table that offers a way out.”
The proposal is not meant to be a settlement but a catalyst for peace. As it stands, the plan requires that Israel meet a list of sweeping conditions--and only then will it be rewarded with “normal relations.”
If all the terms are met, the league statement said, Arab countries would “consider the Arab-Israeli conflict ended and enter into a peace agreement with Israel and provide security for all states of the region.”
For Israel to comply, it would have to withdraw from all territory occupied since the 1967 Middle East War, including the Golan Heights. It would have to offer a “just solution” to the Palestinian refugees--taken to mean compensation or resettlement--and accept an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
But it was unclear whether all the league members are truly committed to the initiative or instead felt compelled not to block it.
‘Heroic Struggle’ of Palestinians Praised
The declaration threatened: “The leaders affirm in light of the [collapse] of the peace process their commitment to stop having any relations with Israel and reactivating the activities of the Arab boycott office until Israel responds to the implementation of international declarations and the Madrid peace conference and withdraws from all occupied Arab territory to 1967 borders.”
And it chided: "[We are] giving the highest salute to the resilience of the Palestinian people and its honorable resistance in the face of Israeli occupation and its destructive military machine and its oppression and the massacres it inflicts targeting children, women and elderly without discrimination or humanity.”
The declaration said the leaders support the “legitimate, heroic struggle in the face of occupation until its just demands represented in the right of return and self-determination and establishment of an independent state and Jerusalem as its capital are achieved.”
The issue of the refugees, which the declaration muddied, may well be the most problematic to resolve, not only for Israel but for Arab states as well. Lebanon, for example, strongly opposed the initial Saudi proposal because it didn’t expressly guarantee that refugees would be repatriated. Lebanon is home to several hundred thousand Palestinians, many of whose families have been here since Israel was founded in 1948.
To that end, Lebanon had a sentence added to the peace initiative ensuring that host countries would never be forced to give citizenship to the refugees.
A separate final communique, the last of three documents issued at the conclusion of the conference, also committed the Arab community to donating $55 million a month for six months to the Palestinian Authority and $150 million to pay for “supporting areas of development in Palestine.”
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem and special correspondent Ranwa Yehia in Beirut contributed to this report.