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Arab summit opens with angry words and walkouts

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Associated Press WriterBEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) -- At a tumultuous summit opening marked by angry words and walkouts, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah proposed Wednesday that the Arab world offer Israel "normal relations" and security in exchange for full withdrawal from Arab lands held since 1967 and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

As Abdullah presented his long-awaited peace overture, a spat erupted after the host, Lebanon, prevented Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from addressing the forum live by satellite from the West Bank. The Palestinian delegation walked out of the session in fury. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri later said Arafat's speech would be carried Thursday morning, though it was not clear how the dispute had been resolved.

Arafat welcomed the Saudi initiative and urged Arab leaders to adopt it. The White House praised Abdullah, with spokeswoman Claire Buchan saying President Bush "urges other leaders to build on the crown prince's ideas to address the cause of peace in the troubled region." Administration officials also disclosed that Abdullah will meet with Bush at his Texas ranch during the last week in April.

Israel, however, was cool to the overture, saying the offer of "normal relations" was too vague and rejecting Palestinian refugees' right of return.

The Arab summit began debate over whether to adopt Abdullah's proposal with several nations expressing support and Syria seeking some changes. The summit has been plagued by no-shows: Out of 22 Arab League member states, a dozen leaders were absent. Most significantly, Arafat and the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, all of whom support the Saudi plan, stayed away amid anger at Israeli policies.

Still, Abdullah delivered the initiative in a 10-minute speech that drew applause and was broadcast live on television.

The Saudi crown prince first floated his ideas last month and has since been revising some specifics, adding the call for the right of return, a traditional Arab demand not mentioned initially.

Abdullah referred Wednesday to "normal relations" with Israel -- a slight change from the "full normalization" he offered in his initial comments to The New York Times in February. Israel said Wednesday it saw the new term as somewhat less than normalization.

The terminology of what level of peace to offer Israel has been the subject of intense Arab wrangling ahead of the Beirut summit. Syria and other hard-liners considered "full normalization" -- seen as meaning open trade, tourism and cultural exchanges -- too great a concession too soon. They pressed instead for the phrasing "comprehensive peace" -- seen by Israel as meaning a more distant peace.

Abdullah appeared to stay closer to his original language, though he didn't use the exact term.

He said the Arabs should present a collective plan to be forwarded to the U.N. Security Council based on "normal relations and the security of Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees." An official Saudi English text translated "al-Quds al-Sharif" as "east Jerusalem," referring to the sector of the city seized by Israel in 1967.

"Having a real peace is the only way to normalize relations between all the peoples and the only thing that could replace all the destruction," he said.

"I tell the Israeli people that if their government gives up the policy of force and suppression and accepts genuine peace, we will not hesitate in accepting the Israeli people's right to live in security with the rest of the people in the region," Abdullah said.

In a fresh illustration of the violence Abdullah decried, a suicide bomber blew himself up Wednesday evening in a crowded hotel lobby in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya during a dinner marking the start of the Jewish Passover holiday. Police said more than a dozen people were killed.

Earlier Wednesday, Israeli troops shot dead two armed Palestinians who infiltrated from the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arafat called Abdullah's initiative "courageous" and urged the summit to adopt the offer as "an Arab initiative for the peace of the brave between us and the Israeli people and Jews in the world."

He made the comments in a speech aired on the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera after Lebanon refused to let him speak Wednesday to the summit live by satellite hookup, prompting the Palestinian walkout.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud said his government wanted Arafat to give a taped speech, rather than speak live via satellite. "Live transmission contains some dangers because of the possibility of Israelis interfering with the line," he said. A Lebanese official speaking on condition of anonymity said it was feared Israel could replace Arafat's signal with a message by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to beam into the summit hall.

Until being forced out of Lebanon by Israeli troops in 1982, Arafat ran a state-within-a-state in Beirut during the chaos of the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war in which Palestinian guerrillas played a major role. The guerrillas had staged cross-border raids into Israel, bringing an incursion in 1978 and a full-scale invasion in 1982 in which the Israelis for the first time occupied an Arab capital.

The Arabs have long pressed a land-for-peace formula in Mideast negotiations, but Abdullah's proposal has raised interest because it spells out more explicitly what the Arab world would offer Israel and because it comes from Saudi Arabia, which has mostly stayed out the peace process.

Israel said Wednesday that Abdullah's offer was still too vague. "We would like to hear directly from Saudis what they mean by normal relations," said Raanan Gissin, a Sharon adviser.

Gissin said that while normalization means full relations and reconciliation, "normal relations" could be restricted to formal recognition between governments.

He proposed a new Arab summit at which Israel would be present to clarify the issues -- an idea Arab states have rejected.

Danny Ayalon, another Sharon adviser, said demands that Israel recognize the refugees' right to return are "totally unacceptable."

Israel says the return of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 war would undermine the state's Jewish nature. Sharon also long has rejected the principle of returning all occupied Arab land.

While most of the no-shows at the summit were a result of health reasons, anger at Israeli policies kept several top moderates away.

Arafat decided not to come after Israel demanded he call a cease-fire before it would let him travel to Beirut and said it may not let him return home if there is violence in his absence. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak decided to stay away in solidarity with Arafat.

At the last minute, Jordan's King Abdullah II also decided not to come, because of exhaustion and a sore throat after a long foreign tour, according to his information minister.

Underlining the attention the Saudi offer has drawn, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan also spoke at the summit. He urged Arab leaders to deliver a "credible assurance ... that, once Israel concludes a just and comprehensive peace and withdraws from Arab lands, it can look forward to peace and full normal relations with all the Arab world."

Egypt and Jordan signed peace deals with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively. They and Mauritania are the only three Arab League members with full diplomatic links with Israel. The Palestinians have signed economic, political and security agreements, while Qatar and Oman have low-level trade relations with Israel.


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