Another Failed Arab Summit - Symbol of a Hopelessly Divided Arab World / Zvi Mazel

Arab heads of state held their annual summit from March 27 to March 28 in the coastal city of Sirte in Libya. The “Sirte declaration” issued at the close of the meeting demonstrates the divisions and hopelessness of the Arab world. Before it started it had been touted “The summit of support to Jerusalem and to Al Aqsa”, after weeks of inflammatory rhetoric condemning the inclusion by Israel in the list of national Jewish heritage of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and of Rachel’s tomb near Jerusalem, demanding a building freeze in the settlements, Jerusalem included, as a condition for starting indirect negotiations, and threatening a popular uprising in the occupied territories. A number of important decisions were therefore expected to be taken> They included the setting up of a special committee to fight the so called“ judaization” of Jerusalem, a call to the Security Council and/or the U.N General Assembly to condemn Israel, and the convening of an international conference for the protection of Jerusalem. The summit was also expected to adopt a clear position regarding the opening of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In an earlier gathering at the ministerial level, the Arab League had given the green light to Abu Mazen – at his request - to start indirect negotiations provided there was a total building freeze.
It became immediately clear that reaching concrete decisions would not be easy. Out of 22 heads of state, only 13 showed up. President Mubarak of Egypt did not come. Neither did the Saudi king. Without them, no decisive steps could be taken. Mahmud Abbas did come to Sirte, though he had weighed staying away because Khadafi had refused to see him two weeks earlier. However he nearly turned right back, since the Libyan leader, who had received each head of state at the airport, was conspicuously absent at his arrival. It took a lot of efforts to convince him to stay.
On the first day of discussion, Arab States pledged five hundred million dollars to preserve the “Arab nature” of Jerusalem - but without specifying how much each country would contribute, who would get the money and supervise its spending, and what would be the precise goals. Furthermore, there were sharp differences of opinions concerning the Palestinian issue. The Syrian Foreign Minister, Walid el Muallem, stated unequivocally that his country was in favor of the armed resistance and would not support any resolution calling for indirect talks with Israel. This was in direct contradiction to the stand taken by the Arab League earlier. Yet Syria received the backing of the host country – Libya, of Qatar, and, more surprisingly, of Kuwait. Abbas retorted that he would abide by the peace option – unless all Arab countries decided to fight Israel, in which case he would go along. By then it was clear that there would be no discussion of the Saudi peace initiative, since Syria, which had declared at the last summit that it should be cancelled, had restated its position. No mention of the initiative was therefore made in the closing resolution, which after the usual condemnation of Israel, decided on only one step: the convening in the course of the current year of an international conference on the protection of Jerusalem with the participation of all Arab states, Arab workers unions and syndicates and representatives of civil society organizations under the umbrella of the Arab league. Nothing was said regarding who was to be in charge of organizing that conference and it is not clear whether it will indeed be convened. No decision was taken regarding negotiations with Israel. This was the best that could be achieved in view of the complete lack of consensus on the Palestinian problem.
There was another, unexpected topic introduced by Amr Moussa, which, had it been adopted, would have led to a startling change in global Arab strategy. The Secretary General of the Arab League suggested that Arab states open a dialogue with Iran with a view to reaching an understanding regarding the Middle East and the nuclear issue. Moussa went as far as proposing that a special group be formed including neighboring non Arab states such as Turkey, Ethiopia and Chad – but without Israel “as long as it occupies Arab lands”. Turkish Prime Minister Erduan, who has been invited to the summit, and had made a speech attacking Israel, seconded the move but, both the Saudi Foreign Minister representing his country and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif of Egypt rejected it angrily after stating that there was no indication that dialogue with Teheran was possible. The proposal was passed on to a special committee – effectively being withdrawn from the agenda. It is not clear what prompted Moussa to raise such a divisive issue without having first discussed it with key Arab member states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He probably did it under Syrian pressure with Khadafi’s blessing.
All the summit could come up with was a decision to convene an extraordinary summit in Libya at the end of October to discuss the problems raised at the March meeting, including the strange proposition of the Yemeni president Ali Salah, to replace the Arab League by an “Arab Union”. It seems that the need for lip service and empty declarations aimed to emphasize a spurious “Arab Union” increases with the deepening chasm between the positions of the various Arab States.
As a rule, flowering speeches are made at the concluding session, lauding the importance of the meeting and the resolutions taken, but not this time. None of the Arab leaders took the floor; they just distributed what would have been their speeches to the Press. It was left to Amr Moussa to say a few final words and then they all departed hastily.
A week before the summit, an Egyptian daily had asked its readers what was their expectations: the unanimous answer had been: none.
The Sirte summit is the faithful image of a divided Arab world. North African countries are far away from the Palestinian problem and not overly interested in investing political efforts to solve it or donating significant amount of money. They have enough on their plates with regional issues such as the Western Sahara area between Algiers and Morocco, the fight against the Maghreb branch of Al Qaida, Khadafi’s crazy ideas – and the very real social and economic problems they have to deal with. In the Middle East around Israel there is a deepening rift between Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – egged on by Iran – on the one hand and the more pragmatic countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Iran acting through its proxies is involved in subversive and terror activities in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The Gulf Emirates are under a constant Iranian threat. Teheran refuses to discuss the fate of three islands belonging to the United Emirates which it conquered in 1971. Civil war could break out at any time in Iraq in spite of the elections: Iran, Al Qaida and what’s left of the Baath party are fomenting troubles and the country could plunge into chaos. Sudan is also on the verge of civil war.
And these are only a few of the problems Arab States have to deal with. The only issue they can usually agree on is the fight against Israel, but this time the extreme stand taken by Syria defeated even that. There is nothing left for them to do now but wait in the hope that Obama will do their work for them. It is quite possible that this is one of the reasons they did not adopt any of the radical decisions they had been expected to take.

Zvi Mazel
Former Ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden
Fellow of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters (without spaces) shown in the image.