No Lost Sleep Over the Postponed Summit

The Palestinian leadership was not especially disappointed yesterday when it learned of the postponement of the Arab summit conference that was to begin today in Tunis.

The Palestinian leadership was not especially disappointed yesterday when it learned of the postponement of the Arab summit conference that was to begin today in Tunis. At the Muqata in Ramallah, they had completed arrangements for broadcast of the speech that Yasser Arafat was to deliver, via satellite, and the Palestinian media reported in detail on the meticulous security arrangements implemented in Tunis.

Since the 1960s, Arafat has made it his business to participate in every summit conference, but he has not made it to any of the more recent conferences due to the siege Israel has imposed on him. The Arabs used to stridently demand that Israel allow Arafat to attend the summit sessions. Now they seem to have grown accustomed to his absence. The announcements about the postponement of the summit made no mention of the fact that Arafat was not going to attend.

Palestinian demands from the Arab states have not changed in years. The Palestinians ask that Arab states work harder on behalf of the Palestinian struggle, and that they enlist all their strength and diplomatic influence to pressure America and the European countries to adopt a more sympathetic stand on the Palestinian issue - none of which has happened.

Palestinian expectations of the summit in Tunis were perhaps lower than ever. Members of the Palestinian leadership can see that nearly all of the Arab rulers are now engaged in what is going on in Iraq, in American threats against Syria and in international demands for reform in Arab regimes (evidently the main reason for the postponement).

As always, the Palestinian street has unkind things to say about Arab leaders, who are portrayed as a collection of corrupt tyrants at the beck and call of the U.S., ready to betray the Arab nation in general, and the Palestinians in particular. Not a week passes without the Palestinian press publishing contemptuous, mocking caricatures of Arab leaders (usually they are not specifically named; rather, they are drawn in a standard likeness of a fat, mustachioed man wearing robes, in the style of the Persian Gulf rulers).

In previous summit meetings, Arab states adopted a financial assistance plan for the Palestinian Authority, which needs some $50 million a month to pay salaries. Palestinian cabinet ministers say the Arab states have failed to deliver on their financial commitments.

One factor that has somewhat disrupted preparations for this summit was the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Most Palestinians derived great pleasure from scenes of the demonstrations against Israel and the U.S., some of them violent, which took place throughout the Arab world after Yassin's death. Such demonstrations always become protests against rulers of the country in which they take place, who are asked to break off any contact, direct or indirect, with Israel.

The prime minister's disengagement plan, which confounded the Palestinians, is confounding Arab leaders, too. If the Israeli government is planning unilateral steps, and cutting itself off from the Palestinians - why should the Arabs and the Palestinians work hard to draw up a plan for negotiations and a settlement? Indeed, there is an Arab plan for a settlement (the Saudi initiative that was adopted by the Arab League in March 2002), and during the preparations for the summit, there was talk about possibly updating and improving it. In the meantime, however, the Israeli idea of a withdrawal from Gaza has been tabled, and at least Egypt and Jordan are hoping to see the withdrawal as a first step in a comprehensive Israeli withdrawal, in the framework of the road map.

Farouk Kaddoumi, the Palestinian rejectionist who is backed by Syria, said in newspaper interviews this weekend that as far as he can fathom, there is no interest right now in peace initiatives; thus, there is no reason for the Arab leaders to even be discussing the matter.

If in the past, Arab summit conferences were a subject that sparked excitement and enthusiasm among the Palestinian public and its leadership, today's summit was conceived as a routine, ho-hum event. Arafat was supposed to give one of his ordinary speeches, and the Arab spokesmen had prepared a few mutual verbal barbs. The Palestinians had few expectations of the summit, and no one is losing sleep over its postponement.