Shaky Peace Initiative

The task of dealing with Mideast's 3 major crises returns to individual states or small groups of countries.

"Half a league," "the missing persons' summit," "the summit of dissension" - these were just some of the descriptions given to the Arab League summit in Damascus that ended on Sunday. Granted, league secretary-general Amr Moussa and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem declared it a success, but even in their speeches, the success sounded dubious. The fact that the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan all skipped the summit not only emphasized their well-known disagreements with Syria, it also drew a thick line under the distinction between the "Arab club" and the "Iranian club."

The only benefits that Damascus seems to have derived from the summit are the 200 Mercedes cars that Kuwait donated, at Syria's request, to meet the country's hospitality needs. After all, the summit failed to reach agreement on solutions to either the Lebanon crisis or the Palestinians' internal divisions; it did not even issue a clear statement of support for national reconciliation in Iraq.

The task of dealing with the Middle East's three major crises has thus been returned to individual states or small groups of countries. The Israeli-Palestinian crisis will be handed back to Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the Lebanon crisis will be dealt with by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran; and the internal Palestinian conflict will continue to be left to sporadic initiatives such as that of Yemen and Egyptian mediation. Syria might ultimately dive into this latter conflict as well: President Bashar Assad plans to convene a mini-summit of the various Palestinian factions in Damascus to try to record a personal achievement.

But regardless, terms such as "the general Arab interest" or "Arab policy," which were the showcases of previous Arab summits, were dealt a fatal blow. This time, the very fact that the summit occurred was the achievement, with the list of participants replacing the list of decisions as the measure of its success.

This public spat calls the very need for a pan-Arab framework into question, since even in the past, this framework failed to prevent regional wars or craft peaceful solutions. But it should also raise questions about the vitality of the Saudi initiative for Israeli-Arab peace. This initiative was adopted at the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, but its continued existence depends on the existence of an Arab consensus. In light of the deep disputes that currently divide the league's members, is it possible to be certain that the countries that approved the initiative will continue to adhere to it?

Admittedly, the initiative was reconfirmed at the current summit. But already this time, fears arose that it would suffer changes and amendments.

As for Syria, it seems that its "punishment" by other Arab leaders made it clear even to them that if they wish to thwart Iran's influence in the Arab Middle East, they must hasten to rescue Damascus from that very isolation in which they seek to imprison it. Their public display of anger might prove to be a boomerang that, should Syria choose to flex a few additional muscles, will make it even harder for the Arab states to resolve the Lebanon crisis and the Palestinian conflict.