"The Arab citizen has gotten used to the idea that Arab summit meetings bring no benefit. He expects the meetings to produce declarations, but realizes that these declarations will mean nothing," Lebanese analyst Mohammed Mashmoushi wrote in Al-Hayat last week. But today, when the Arab League summit convenes in Riyadh, it seems the Arab citizen does indeed have something to look forward to, as does the Israeli citizen.
The first new move took place Saturday in Aswan, Egypt. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped off the plane to meet "representatives of the moderate faction" of the Arab League - the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Why did she not meet the foreign ministers of Qatar or Lebanon, for example - two countries that can be considered moderate? Because Qatar does not speak to Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon currently lacks an official representative. In fact, one could list all the member countries and explain why, given each option, Rice could meet with only these four. As a result, Rice, and anyone else waiting for the outcome of the Riyadh summit, will apparently have to make do with "the ratification of the Saudi Arabian initiative." No innovations, no corrections, no updating.
A senior Jordanian visitor in Israel this week told Haaretz that the Arab summit meetings long ago stopped serving as a serious forum for debating the Middle East's problems. "The Beirut conference was the last time the discussions had any kind of content. This time there are too many conflicting interests, and I recommend you don't hold your breath," he said.
In fact, it is difficult to point to even one Arab League achievement in the past few years. It did not prevent the war in Iraq, and it cannot present an Arab formula for solving that country's problems. The major players in the Lebanon drama regard it with courtesy but don't take it seriously. It is out of touch on the Palestinian issue, both in terms of a solution and the internal Palestinian crisis. And as for inter-Arab civilian matters, such as free trade, it is not involved. A new Middle East will apparently not be drafted tomorrow.
The most interesting aspect for the average Israeli will be the Palestinian speech, of course - especially Hamas' reaction to the Arab initiative. No less interesting is the question of relations between the member states, relations that constantly threaten to destroy the delicate, disintegrating fabric known as the Arab League.
Who will represent Lebanon?
The tension between Qatar and Saudi Arabia increased after Al-Jazeera, which is owned by the ruling Qatari family, decided to translate and broadcast a BBC documentary about the Al-Yamama affair. Al-Yamama is the giant military acquisitions program Saudi Arabia kicked off in the 1980s, under which British Aerospace representatives apparently paid impressive bribes to Saudi Arabian agents and mediators. The Saudis view the Qatari decision as part of a conspiracy to harm the kingdom and insult its leaders.
The Saudi Arabians also believe the timing is not coincidental. Saudi imam Khaled bin Abdel Rahman al-Shia was accorded almost a full page in Al-Hayat, paid for by Saudi Arabia, to explain to readers that Al-Jazeera chose precisely the week of the summit meeting to denounce the kingdom. And what did al-Shia have to say about this? That Qatar, via Al-Jazeera, is acting against Saudi Arabian policies in the Middle East, starting with drawing closer to the Palestinians and ending with Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Lebanese affair.
When this article was written, the Lebanese government had not yet reached an agreement with the Lebanese president over who would represent the country in Riyadh. President Emile Lahoud is, on the face of it, the natural candidate - but we are talking about a president who is no longer acceptable to Saudi Arabia. Therefore Riyadh, which is for the first time hosting a general summit meeting (as opposed to the limited 1976 meeting) has agreed to accept Lahoud only if he is accompanied by Fouad Siniora, the Lebanese prime minister. Thus Saudi Arabia wishes to express its position not only regarding Lebanon's political crisis that refuses to heal, but also toward Syria - so long as the latter is not prepared to agree to the establishment of an international tribunal over the murder of Rafik Hariri, Riyadh is not prepared to talk with Damascus. And therefore, so long as Syria's trusted representative in Lebanon is Lahoud, Saudi Arabia will embrace its "own" Lebanese representative, Siniora.
The settling of accounts does not end with that. Egypt, for example, opened a complicated account with Washington this week after Rice vehemently denounced the constitutional reforms the Egyptian parliament approved - over which a referendum was held Monday - a short while before she left for Aswan. Rice is opposed to clauses on the rights of suspects and detainees, she does not understand why presidents' terms are not limited, and the clause outlawing the establishment of religious parties is also problematic. President Hosni Mubarak was insulted, and Saturday, the Egyptian media hardly mentioned Rice's visit to Egypt. Is Washington now in a position to ask Egypt to promote American initiatives?
It's Israel's turn
When these are the relations between the core Middle East nations, it is hard to imagine them reaching agreements on such cardinal questions as the situation in Iraq and the Palestinian conflicts. It is hard to see how they can relate seriously to the Iranian threat, even though the matter was raised in the last conference - albeit in a veiled fashion.
The Palestinian question is twofold: The revolutionary declarations from the 2002 Beirut summit meeting, including the Saudi Arabian initiative, are still up in the air. At the time, Israel rejected the initiative, while Washington did not quite understand its significance. The flexibility on the refugee question, and the strategic decision to give the Arab countries the role of partner - at the very least guaranteeing that Palestinian-Israeli peace would indeed come to be - was seen as an Arab public relations tactic.
It must be remembered that this conference was held only half a year after September 11, whose aftermath led to an attack on the Arabs and on Islam. Afghanistan had already been invaded, and the war on Iraq was in advanced stages of planning. The Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, understood then that a positive Arab initiative about the Palestinian issue might alleviate part of the Arab world's burden. The result was a revolutionary text that did not receive sufficient attention due to the circumstances. But now, this text is again resounding through the Arab world, Jerusalem and Washington.
The question now is not whether there will be a Palestinian right of return, but whether the member states will change the text for Israel's benefit. Because now - even if there is an understanding that the Saudi Arabian initiative should be updated, that one should speak about flexible borders, and that the text should be more polished regarding the refugee arrangement - Arab League secretary Amr Moussa and Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faysal have made it clear the initiative will not be changed until Israel adopts it formally and publicly. This is not an irreversible decision, but rather a tactic. The Arab countries believe Israel's turn has arrived.
But Saudi Arabia has another account to settle with Israel and Washington, in the wake of February's Mecca agreement. This led to the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, which Israel does not recognize. The agreement was the result of a Saudi Arabian effort, and now the Arab citizen is waiting to see how Saudi Arabia will treat the agreement it birthed. Will it succeed in breaking the siege against Palestine and thus in annulling the Quartet's decisions? Or will it propose an alternate deal: cooperation with the Palestinian government in return for a resolute Arab stance on Iran and cooperation over Iraq?
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