- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Arab leaders closed their strained ranks at a summit meeting yesterday with a barrage of progressive resolutions and traditional demands on key Middle East issues.

The 27 resolutions of the 16th summit of the Arab League do not presage immediate changes either in either the league’s structure or Arab attitudes toward Israel, the Palestinians or the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Differences among the Arab leaders that plagued summit preparations were brushed aside or glossed over to maintain unity.

Details of all decisions and resolutions have to be worked out at the league’s summit next year in Algiers and must be ratified by the governments and parliaments of the countries involved.

Many decisions represent compromises between the demands of hard-liners and of pro-Western countries, including host Tunisia, which sought to avoid a clash with the United States.

Nevertheless, the final statement on the Israeli-Arab conflict said the summit “completely rejects the stand taken by the United States and Israel and which conflicts with international legitimacy.”

“The peace process must be founded on international legitimacy, United Nations resolutions and the principle of land against peace.”

There was a feeling of relief when the long-delayed summit, “wanted by no one” according to one Arab official, ended with a barrage of congratulatory statements.

“The Arab leaders consider this summit a turning point in joint Arab action,” the final communique said.

At a joint post-summit news conference, Amr Moussa, the league’s secretary-general, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib Ben Yahia said, “Consensus was reached through profound discussions and negotiations.”

In the end, the final word was left to member governments.

While abstaining from attacks on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, the final communique praised Palestinian resistance “for the fight to get their nation’s right to self-determination and their right to establish their independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.”

Various resolutions adopted for further study include a plan to streamline the 59-year-old league’s structure, the creation of an Arab parliament, bank and a court of justice, and a call for women’s rights pushed by the Tunisian hosts.

Mr. Moussa said all such projects depend not only on the good will of participants, “but must be backed financially.”

In closing the meeting, Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali said: “The message of peace that the Tunis summit has addressed to the international community represents a strategic choice for the Arab nation, and bears testimony to its steadfast belief in the unity of human destiny.”

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