03/27/2007, 00.00
SAUDI ARABIA – ARAB LEAGUE
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Some positive moves from Riyadh summit for Israel, not for Lebanon

The Arab League summit opens tomorrow as acceptance for Saudi peace plan increases. UN secretary general is expected. Lebanon will be represented by two delegations, a remarkable sign of the country’s division. Iraq might announce new steps on the path of national reconciliation.

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – This year's Arab League summit in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia) is expected to give a small push to the peace process in the Middle East. The two-day meeting, which opens tomorrow and might do better than previous ones, comes at time when many parties to the various conflicts are trying to revive various peace initiatives.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is soon to travel to the Middle East. United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already been there for the past three days.

And even before the summit begins there is talk that Syria is expected to make its peace with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Arab League members will have an important agenda to discuss. First of all, there is the Saudi peace plan which calls for the recognition by the League’s 22 members of the State of Israel in exchange for the Jewish State’s withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967, the creation of a Palestinian state and the return of refugees.

Another hot issue will be normalization in Iraq following the Baghdad Conference that brought together the United States, Syria and Iran around the same table.

A third crucial issue will be the ongoing Lebanese crisis. But short of some miracle, any attempt to solve this problem is dead in the water. Lebanon itself is being represented by two delegations, one led by pro-Syrian President Émile Lahoud and the other headed by pro-Western Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. President Lahoud has already challenged the agenda agreed to by Arab League foreign ministers since it includes an expression of support for Lebanon’s government, which the president does not recognise as legitimate. In order to avoid anything that might legitimise the Siniora government, Lahoud is willing to see Arab League support for the seven-point cease-fire that ended last summer’s war between Lebanon and Israel dropped since it came from the government.

“The Lebanese are once again divided,” warned Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, “as if there were two Lebanons, and this is more dangerous than anything else.”

Even Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said that there was a chance of reconciliation in Lebanon, but only if the “parties will put their country's interest above everything else.”

Similarly, Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa postponed his attempt at mediation until after the summit.

By contrast, there might be positive developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saudi Arabia’s 2002 peace plan, which had initially failed to draw much attention, is now gathering growing support.

Unlike previous occasions Israel has not rejected it outright. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week that it could provide the basis for renewed talks with Arab leaders. Mr Olmert especially welcomed the idea of contacts with Arab leaders, even though he said some changes had to be made to the Saudi plan.

For her part, Secretary Rice, discussing the Arab League summit, said that Arab countries should be open to Israel and show that they have accepted the latter’s presence in the Middle East.

Important from this point of view is the possibility that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon might be carrying a message form Olmert to Saudi King Abdullah.

Even though Arab leaders have publicly rejected Israeli calls for changes to the 2002 Saudi peace offer, Saudi Foreign Minister al-Faisal suggested change was likely. “It is expected from us to take notice of new developments,” he said.

Notwithstanding preliminary verbal fencing, much might depend on the meetings between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Ms Rice announced today that the two leaders have agreed to regularise their meetings every two weeks.

She added that the sides were “not yet at final status negotiations” over Gaza and the West Bank, but that the goal remained that of a two-state solution, remarks not well received by a cold-faced Olmert.

As for Iraq, the absence of the two main players in the conflict, the United States and Iran, will ensure little movement.

Predictable statements of support for the Iraqi government aside, there are expectations that some moves will be made in the process of national reconciliation, which might take the form of some constitutional changes in the area of federalism and the place of former Baa’th Party members.

Perhaps, an effort will also be made to get Syria to renew its commitment to intercepting weapons and terrorists moving through its territory on their way to Baghdad. Just this would be something. (PD)

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