- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Arab leaders postponed indefinitely a summit scheduled to begin tomorrow because of disagreement over a plan for encouraging democratic reform in the Middle East, the Tunisian Foreign Ministry said.

Arab League member states failed to reach a consensus on proposed political reforms that would serve as an Arab response to the U.S.-proposed “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which aims to spread democracy in a region of authoritarian rule.

The leaders also were divided over reviving a Middle East peace initiative in the wake of Israel’s assassination of Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin last week.

“It became clear that there was a variance of positions on … proposals related to fundamental issues on modernization, democratic reform, human rights and the rights of women,” the Tunisian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Final preparations for the summit had been proceeding under the cloud of a possible boycott of the two-day meeting by some heads of state. Some Arab countries, among them Syria, were complaining that the escalation in Israeli-Palestinian fighting should be at the top of the agenda, rather than reform and a peace initiative.

The Arabs had hoped to use the summit to give a new push to a 2002 initiative in which the Arabs, for the first time, offered Israel a comprehensive peace in return for Israeli withdrawal from all territory seized in the 1967 Middle East War.

At least seven Arab leaders had bowed out of the summit meeting, some for health reasons and others — including Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and the pro-U.S. king of Bahrain — because of dissatisfaction over the political situation after Sheik Yassin’s killing.

Despite the disagreements, summit participants had been working yesterday on melding a joint reform proposal from plans submitted separately by Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Qatar and Tunisia. But late last night, Tunisian Foreign Minister Hatef ben Salem telephoned his counterparts to inform them that the conference would be postponed.

“We were astonished, because there weren’t deep divisions,” Mr. ben Salem said, according to Agence France-Presse.

The decision to postpone the summit came after what was reportedly a stormy session among Arab foreign ministers on Friday.

Analysts said the Tunisians were never comfortable with the idea of hosting the summit for fear that the discussions about democratic reform could sow unrest in their country of 10 million people. The government declared tomorrow and Tuesday a holiday — apparently an attempt to prevent antigovernment demonstrations on local college campuses.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. ben Salem and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa had sounded upbeat during a news conference about the prospects for a joint plan.

“We are working on an Arab approach. We will have an Arab formulation for reform despite what others say,” Mr. Moussa said. “We delegated a team to research the matter together.”

Arab leaders have been on the defensive regarding the Bush administration’s Middle East democracy initiative. Together with European states, they’ve argued that a reform program must be developed in the Middle East rather than imposed by outsiders.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tacitly acknowledged that position as well during a visit to Kuwait.

The irony of democratic reform in the Middle East is that while ending the political domination of royal families, it could give power to fundamentalist Islamic opposition groups that are opposed to a Western-style secular government.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Moussa said that democratic reform in the Arab world would be linked to progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is a movement toward change. But this is linked to the stability of the region and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said.

“Any movement toward stability in the region will help.”

Mr. Moussa said he favors a “comprehensive” proposal spanning political, economic, cultural and social spheres, but provided no specifics.

But sensing an air of disaster, Arab journalists asked the Tunisian foreign minister and Mr. Moussa whether the summit was doomed to failure.

At the afternoon news conference, Tunisia’s Mr. ben Salem was still optimistic, telling reporters, “Don’t rush to judge the outcome.”

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