Arabs avoid controversy but call for peace

Arab leaders steered clear of the region’s most contentious issues as they prepared to wrap up a summit on Wednesday, while their resolution to reactivate a Middle East peace plan was swiftly rejected by Israel.

Maverick Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi upstaged the final session of the summit in Algiers with an unscheduled address describing Israel and the Palestinians as “idiots”, leaving his audience in fits of laughter.

The meeting also was marked by the absence of several key players and the summit’s failure to tackle some of the most controversial issues facing the troubled region, including Syria’s pull-out from Lebanon.

Only 13 heads of states from the 22-member Arab League showed up for the summit, which opened on Tuesday with plans to reactivate a three-year-old land-for-peace initiative to normalise ties with Israel.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and the Saudi de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, were among those absent.

The leaders were due to adopt a declaration echoing the one released at last year’s Tunis conference, pledging Arab support for Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians to recover land occupied by Israel.

The statement also calls on the international community to help back the Arab peace initiative—a Jordanian proposal based on a Saudi plan submitted and endorsed by the 2002 Beirut summit but spurned by Israel.

Israel was quick to reject the offer.

A senior official from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said the Arabs are trying “to give this illusion of unity on the surface by adopting resolutions that contradict with all of the advances made, particularly by Egypt and Jordan, which is unacceptable”.

“The summit proved it is out of touch with reality and in a delicate situation regarding developments in the Arab world,” the official added.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulki said Israel’s “quick and negative” reaction looks as if “they are not interested in peace, and we hope this is not the case”.

The summit’s final declaration makes peace with Israel conditional on the creation of an independent Palestinian state and the return of refugees.

“Based on the Arab peace initiative, Arab countries will therefore consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over and will set up normal ties with Israel within the framework of a comprehensive peace,” said a copy obtained by AFP.

It reaffirms “respect for Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and independence and non-interference in its domestic affairs” and welcomes its political transition following the historic legislative elections held in January.

It also voices concern for the civil war in Sudan’s western Darfur region and calls for emergency humanitarian aid but fails to make any specific commitment.

It likewise condemns “terrorism in all its forms and regardless of its motives and justifications” and says it should not be linked to Islam.

It offers support for Lebanon and Syria without mentioning a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding a full Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of militant groups such as Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, however, made clear he meant business, telling the summit the military pull-out should be completed by May and announcing that a new probe could be needed in the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Hariri’s assassination in a massive bomb blast last month prompted the Lebanese opposition to accuse Syria and its allies in the Lebanese government of responsibility for his death.

The Arabs agreed to set up a Parliament and exhorted members of the cash-strapped pan-Arab organisation to pay up their dues, but they announced no measures to sanction those who fail to do so.

The leaders—who will meet in Khartoum next year—promised to pursue a plan for reform announced last year but did not give details despite incessant appeals from the West to see more democracy in the region.—Sapa-AFP