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Arab summit lies in ruins as Arafat is fenced in: Arafat and Sharon in battle of wills over summit

27 March 2002

Bush pins hopes on Saudi plan despite setback Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, threw Yasser Arafat into the valley of humiliation last night, banning his visit to the Beirut Arab summit in the face of feeble American protests. "Unfortunately, the conditions are not yet ripe for Chairman Arafat's departure for Beirut" Mr Sharon said after two Palestinians set off a bomb at an Israeli checkpoint in Jerusalem.

Later, two military observers from an international force stationed at Hebron in the West Bank were shot and killed while driving down a Jewish settlers' road, apparently by Palestinian gunmen. The two victims, believed initially to be Norwegian, were the first members of this unarmed force, set up in 1997 to help ease tensions after the partition of Hebron into Israeli and Palestinian zones, to be killed. Another observer was slightly wounded in the ambush.

President George Bush, who has urged Mr Sharon to allow the Palestinian leader to travel to Beirut to endorse a watered-down version of a UN resolution demanding the return of Israeli occupied land for peace, let Mr Sharon off the hook. Mr Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said: "The President's position is simple and clear. We're dealing with a sovereign [Israeli] government. Governments have the right to make determinations [sic]".

Mr Arafat, could, perhaps talk to Arab leaders via a video-link although he would appear a prisoner of the Israelis on any screen in Beirut. But the Arabs have already seen the trap. And if anyone can smell a rat, Hosni Mubarak can. When the Egyptian President decided last night he would not attend the summit, the word was out. Stay away. Yasser Arafat even if the Israelis were generous enough to allow him to travel to Lebanon at the 11th hour was told by his cronies to remain in his office in Ramallah.

Colonel Gaddafi would not come. Nor would Saddam Hussein. Not even the ruler of the United Arab Emirates deigned to come. Nor the Emir of Qatar. They call this an Arab summit?

In truth, it is a tragedy. For symbolism, one might glance at the ruins of the Holiday Inn. Punched into Irish lace by a hundred shell holes during the civil war, its gaunt facade has been covered by a 500ft advertisement hoarding depicting the far more ancient ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek. "Vivre le Liban," it says. Long live Lebanon. But the summit is dead.

The Americans wanted the Arab kings and presidents to endorse Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah's Heath Robinson "peace plan", a vague and ambiguous proposal of "land for peace" which is itself a watered-down version of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the famous or infamous tract that demanded Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war in return for the security of all states in the area, including Israel.

But the Saudis did not want to talk about Palestinian refugees tens of thousands of whom languish in mud and filth scarcely four miles from the summit conference hotel in Beirut nor about the occupied Syrian Golan Heights which President Bashar Assad of Syria, wants to hear about.

The latest version of the Saudi proposals concentrates on compensating refugees, which few of them would accept. Nor would the Lebanese, the hosts of this ghost summit, who would like the 250,000 Palestinians on their land to go home wherever "home" might be. So what hope of peace in the rain-squalled streets of Beirut last night?

Well, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general is coming. Javier Solana, Europe's best known and least eloquent statesman is here. Indeed, the non-Arabs seemed to be more important than the Arab rulers who have chosen to come to the city in which Mr Arafat and his Israeli nemesis, Ariel Sharon, together helped to ruin in 1982.

Mr Solana was talking last night about a "ray of hope" but the Arabs could not see it. Even if the great and most corrupt of potentates managed to come to Lebanon, they would only have been able to accept the most amorphous of Saudi "peace" plans. Indeed, by mid-morning, the best on offer a new version of the Abdullah proposal was an "end to conflict" with Israel. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of peace and security for either Jew or Arab.

Many Palestinians believed for Mr Arafat to accept Israel's "permission" to attend would amount to a shameful humiliation. Since Mr Sharon told Mr Arafat he must not "incite violence" in any Beirut speech, the Palestinian leader would be a prisoner of the Israelis.

By late last night, the Lebanese were suggesting the two-day summit might last only a day. There would be a ritual nodding in the direction of Crown Prince Abdullah's "peace plan" who would ever offend a Saudi in the Arab world and an equally ritual warning that bombing Iraq would not be a good idea. A draft communiqué for Arab leaders stated there was "serious concern" about Iraq's "unity and safety" and rejected "the use of force or any threats of using force" against Saddam Hussein. And that will surely have President Bush shaking in his boots.

Robert Fisk, in Beirut
Published in the lndependent © 2002 lndependent Digital (UK) Ltd

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