A New Arab Vision of 'The Day After'

Arab leaders who spoke at length at the Arab League summit last week about the suffering of the Palestinian people devoted little or no time in their speeches to the process in which Yasser Arafat is fading away as a leader.

The militant speech delivered by Syrian President Bashar Assad to the Arab summit meeting in Beirut last week left no place, not even half a line, for the distress of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In a knee-jerk move, Lebanese President Emil Lahoud blocked the satellite reception of Arafat's speech, and it was only under huge pressure by Arab leaders that Farouk Kaddoumi, the Palestinian foreign minister, was given the floor for a few minutes on the second day of the summit meeting. Arab leaders who spoke at length about the suffering of the Palestinian people devoted little or no time in their speeches to the process in which Yasser Arafat is fading away as a leader.

The concluding statement of the summit meeting expressed support for the intifada and for the heroism of its martyrs, but did not assert - contrary to the original intention of some of the more extreme leaders, such as the presidents of Syria and Yemen, that the intifada is the legitimate course of action in order to eliminate the occupation. Nor did the final resolution include a budget clause, which would approve the transfer of additional funds or donations to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The closing communique referred only to the "budget" of the PA, but not to money for the intifada.

The PA, whose representatives were forced to demonstrate anger over the neglect of their leader, found itself cut off from the agenda of the summit meeting. It was not only that the attitude displayed toward Arafat painted him as the leader of an underground whose name was best left unmentioned, but also the fact that the content of the summit was decided over his head.

Thus, for example, until a few days ago the representatives of the PA were certain that the term "right of return" would be an integral part of the Saudi initiative. In Beirut they were forced to accept a formula dictated by Lebanon and Syria, with support from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, according to which the solution to the refugee problem is not necessarily the right of return and that it is sufficient to put forward the concept of a "just solution" that is adapted to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (December 1948) in order to remove this problem from the agenda, at least theoretically.

Responsibility for the refugee problem was not imputed to Israel, but on the other hand, the PA was deprived of the authority to determine the end of the conflict. Henceforth a new hegemony exists for dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and it is not in Arafat's hands. He can no longer offer Israel the asset he thought he possessed: entry into the Arab club.

All that remains to Arafat is veto power over conducting negotiations with Israel, and even that prerogative could turn out to be limited. Because if the Arab leaders come to believe that the intifada is threatening their ability to control the "street" in their countries, they may pull the Saudi initiative in further directions.

Here, perhaps, lies the huge added value of the Saudi initiative and its total adoption by all the Arab states. One could, of course and as usual, analyze with dour visage the clauses of the Arab League resolution and take note, with deep disappointment, that "Hatikva" was not adopted as the league's national anthem, or lament the length of time that has passed since the three "nos" of the Khartoum summit in 1967. On the other hand, it is worth examining how the 2002 resolutions might make possible coordinated regional political activity, which so far has been utilized on only one occasion: the Madrid peace conference 11 years ago.

To judge by the determination displayed by the Saudis, the summit resolutions will not be buried in a drawer in Beirut. Crown Prince Abdullah plans to visit Washington in April in order to lobby President Bush to establish an international forum that will resemble the Madrid framework, in order to advance the peace process. The Saudis have already succeeded in persuading UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to invite leading figures from the Middle East to a similar forum.

The Saudi initiative, which in Beirut became the Arab initiative, presents the prospect of the "day after" in a way that has never before been done by any Arab forum. The main clauses of the text referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict are couched in almost businesslike terms, free of ideological rhetoric, and they lay down the practical platform for bringing about the end of the conflict. That is the dilemma the Saudis - by speaking directly to the Israelis and not to the prime minister - have posited for the Israeli public, which will have to decide, after the war against Arafat and after the reprisal operations, which way to turn.