- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia’s hopes for an effective joint Arab front faded yesterday amid recriminations and defections of participants at the weekend summit of 22 Arab nations.

A watered down declaration of intentions of the Arab League settled mainly on “good government” and the necessity to fight terrorism, but fell short of including many significant reforms urged by the Tunisian hosts.

Changes were still possible in the face-saving document produced after Tunisia postponed the summit in March because of what Tunisians felt was inadequate interest in meaningful reforms. The current meeting is officially the continuation of the aborted March summit.

The document presented to the depleted ranks of Arab leaders — in an apparent move to placate the archconservative Persian Gulf states — leaves the progress toward democracy up to “each country’s right to move at its own pace and willing the limits of its social traditions.”

According to Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary-general, “each country has its own priorities but the general framework has been agreed upon and the working paper will deal with transparency, political reforms and women’s right” — all urged by Tunisia.

On the eve of the two-day summit, scheduled to start today, the agenda was still not clear and the number of heads of state attending not certain.

Among the countries to be represented by lower-level envoys were Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and possibly Libya.

Besides discussions on reforms and transition in Iraq, the summit is expected to call on President Bush to “stay committed to peace in the Middle East in accordance with United Nations resolutions.”

In this respect, Arab diplomats said they were encouraged by a U.S. decision Wednesday to allow passage of a U.N. resolution criticizing Israel, saying they hoped it signaled a tougher line against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the Associated Press reported.

The United States usually uses its veto power to block resolutions criticizing Israel.

Mr. Moussa said the U.S. abstention was a positive signal but that the Bush administration should go further to be perceived as an “honest broker” in Mideast peace efforts.

“I hope this is a message that would stress there is a change in American policy,” Mr. Moussa told AP.

Several Arab foreign ministers also said they saw the U.S. abstention as a good sign.

“I hope [the Americans] finally realize that support of Israel under the pretext of self-defense is leaving the Israelis to commit more and more acts of aggression and further complicates and inflames the situation,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said.

The summit appears unlikely to make any concerted response to Mr. Bush’s “Greater Middle East Plan” that involves major political and economic reforms in the area, so far only backed by Tunisia.

According to a member of one delegation, the planners of the summit wanted to ensure there was no visible U.S. influence or reference for the need of democratic reforms.

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