Analysis / Fear of Signing

"If you don't know how to read, go back to school," said Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Fawzi Mulki, sharply reprimanding his colleagues who convened on Saturday to prepare the final statement to be issued by the Arab League at today's Algerian summit.

He was angry because Jordan was being "accused" of proposing something new, an initiative calling for the Arab countries to forge diplomatic relations with Israel even before the end of the conflict.

His anger was justified. The Jordanian initiative, as presented to the foreign ministers - and not as enunciated by King Abdullah - does not speak about diplomatic relations before the end of the conflict, but rather "simultaneously with the formation of a just and lasting peace."

The sharp exchange between the Jordanian foreign minister and some of his Arab counterparts, and the announcement by the Algerian foreign minister hosting today's summit that "Algeria, which has known a million and a half shaheeds, will not be the launching pad for normalization with Israel" - after his president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, embraced Vice Premier Shimon Peres - made Jordan retract its proposal. And apparently King Abdullah will be another head of state who will not honor the summit with his presence "because of prior commitments."

What was the argument about? It was not merely a matter of the formulation or a deviation from the formula of the Beirut summit of 2002. It was a matter of two very different worldviews.

One view is held by countries like Syria, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, and backed by Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa. It says that diplomatic ties with Israel would be a reward for its brutal policies of occupation without anything in exchange from Israel. They think of it as an Arab concession, a form of surrender to American and Israeli pressure and a betrayal of the Palestinian cause that creates a domestic public relations problem for them.

The other approach, represented by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other states, says that diplomatic relations with Israel would not harm the ability of the Arab countries to pressure Israel and advance the peace process. To prove that, Egypt and Jordan point to the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire they helped work out, and various local bilateral issues that have been advanced, such as free trade zones - without giving up "the national cause."

But at the summit today, it seems that the first approach, which rejects forming ties with Israel before the territorial disputes are over, will determine the final statement.

The importance of the summit, therefore, will be on what it decides on another issue on the agenda - how Arab League summits will make decisions in the future.

Until now the league constitution has called for all decisions to be unanimous, but a new proposal is suggesting a two-thirds majority for still undefined major decisions and a simple majority for still undefined minor decisions.

If that motion is passed, it will mean a new era for the Arab League. The countries that currently dictate the consensus in the league will be forced to deal with countries that want to make changes, like forming diplomatic ties with Israel, for example.

On the other hand, some commentators believe that two-thirds majority decisions would further weaken the authority of the Arab League, which has been in decline since it was unable to prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait, America invading Iraq, or some of its members forging relations with Israel.