- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Fury over Israel’s assassination of a prominent Palestinian militant has overshadowed a planned debate on social and political reform as Arab League leaders gather for a two-day summit next week in Tunisia’s capital.

Foreign ministers of the 22-nation Arab alliance fired the first shot yesterday, saying Monday’s killing of Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin by Israeli forces had undermined the prospect of peace talks with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“The current Israeli government is not a peace partner,” said Amr Moussa, Arab League secretary-general. “To sign peace, we need a partner who wants peace. There will be no going back on this issue.”

The League’s foreign ministers met here before the 18th summit meeting Monday, which the Tunisian hosts hope will boost Arab solidarity and produce a “better vision of the future.”

But the idea of wide-ranging political reform — strongly backed by the Bush administration — was proving a divisive force even before the Israeli issue intervened.

Initial difficulties between states ranging from moderates to extremists left the summit chairman, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with a delicate task. He had hoped to keep the gathering on a positive path and avoid recriminations against the United States, considered by Arabs as Israel’s main backer.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials hope the Tunis summit can make progress on both internal reforms and peace with Israel.

“Both need to be attended to; both need the assistance and support of the United States if we’re going to be true friends to the people of the region,” Mr. Boucher said, adding that the Bush administration still plans to seek support of Middle East political reform at the Group of Eight summit this summer.

There were last minute-efforts to increase attendance at the Tunis meeting, but several Arab heads of state — including de facto Saudi ruler Crown Prince Abdallah ben Abdel Aziz — are staying away. If the two-day summit turns out to be a minority gathering, its decisions are unlikely to be either binding on Arab members or impressive to the international community.

A wide-ranging Egyptian proposal for Arab reform produced “stormy” debates among the foreign ministers yesterday, according to one meeting participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

While a majority of the states represented endorsed the plan, “some countries, such as Syria and Lebanon, believe it is not necessary to present a reform plan now, when the priority should be the Arab-Israeli conflict,” the official told the Agence France-Presse.

The foreign ministers of the 59-year-old Arab bloc met in an atmosphere of confusion and disagreement. Unseasonably cold rain pelted the city. Police cordons were thrown up around the hotels housing the delegations, most in dark suits but some, particularly from Yemen, wearing sliver daggers dangling from their traditional robes.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia, chairman of the ministerial meeting, denied reports that because of the late arrival of some delegations, the summit might be delayed.

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