- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 26, 2002

BEIRUT Arab ministers yesterday backed a Saudi peace plan as the starting point for a two-day summit in which 22 Arab nations would seek a common approach to end fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Saudi proposal, floated last month by Crown Prince Abdullah, is "not yet an Arab proposal" on which all members of the Arab League can agree, said Lebanese Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh.
But Sheik Mohammad Salem Sabah, Kuwait's state minister for foreign affairs, told reporters the Saudi land-for-peace proposal had won general agreement and was likely to be adopted.
"It's an Arab message to the world for a full and comprehensive peace," he said.
Under the Saudi plan, Arab nations would extend diplomatic recognition to Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from territory it occupied in 1967.
Arab League leader Amr Moussa warned regional leaders that unless they achieved a just peace with Israel, the Middle East faced the prospect of "total chaos."
Mr. Moussa noted the decades-long conflict with the Jewish state, coupled with anti-Islamic sentiment rising since September 11, had made the timing of this year's summit crucial.
"This summit is sensitive because the international and regional situation is so critical, and we as Arab states and societies face an unfavorable situation at this stage of international developments," he said.
"It relates to the future of the entire region: either justice, peace and progress, or total chaos and escalating confrontations with consequences nobody can predict."
On the eve of the summit, it was also not clear whether Israel would allow Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to attend, despite U.S. pressure on Israel to do so.
Although the meeting has been scheduled for months, this year's summit appears to be of global importance, as violence boils in the Middle East and the United States is gearing up for a confrontation with Iraq.
Politicians and diplomats here have indicated that they do not expect to deal with U.S. demands that Iraq comply with international weapons inspections and other U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The Arab League traditionally has included such language in its final communiques, along with the demand that 1990 sanctions be dropped immediately on humanitarian grounds.
"The foreign ministers are concentrating on the main issue of Arab importance: the Palestinian cause and the Israeli occupation," Lebanon's Mr. Salameh told reporters.
Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Iraq Revolutionary Council, told reporters in Baghdad that the Iraqi government did not anticipate censure this year.
An Iraqi delegation is to resume talks April 18-19 with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Apart from the question of whether or not Mr. Arafat will be allowed to attend, the Saudi plan faces other obstacles.
Syria has taken one of the hardest stands, demanding that Israel first withdraw from the Golan Heights before relations can thaw.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon already has said Israel could not withdraw to the 1967 boundaries.
Successive Israeli leaders have refused to consider the resettlement of millions of refugees, saying it would dilute the country's Jewish character.
Excitement generated by the Saudi initiative has drawn nearly 3,000 reporters, photographers and television crews. Previous summits at best have attracted fewer than 200 mostly Arabic-language journalists.
Beirut, once the "Paris of the Orient," was destroyed by a 15-year civil war that pitted Muslims and Christians against each other and themselves.
The war ended more than a decade ago, but Beirut's scars were visible on every corner.
The Arab League summit was to take place at the luxurious Phoenician hotel, where British spy Kim Philby defected to the Russians.
The hotel has been rebuilt from scratch, but it is surrounded by the ruins of war.
Last month, the government plastered the carcass of the Beirut Holiday Inn looming over the Phoenician with a 24-story mural promoting Lebanese tourism.
But smaller buildings destroyed in the sniper-driven "hotel wars" remain rubbled ghosts.
Security around the summit is heavy, and many Lebanese simply have stayed away from the central business district.
Yesterday afternoon, cafes in the beautifully restored city center were nearly empty, schools were closed and traffic in the area was uncharacteristically light.

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