- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi walked away from an Arab summit yesterday, damaging the unity of the Arab League, to protest against its agenda and failure to take up his proposal for a single Israeli-Palestinian state.

Col. Gadhafi did not immediately pull his country out of the 22-member league, but said he hoped Libya’s basic people’s congresses, local councils that theoretically decide Libyan policy, would agree to a withdrawal.

“Unfortunately, Libya is forced to boycott the summit because it does not agree to the agenda of the Arab governments. Libya wants the agenda of the Arab peoples,” Col. Gadhafi said in a press conference after leaving the opening session.

“What’s the significance of this Arab gathering?” the Associated Press quoted Col. Gadhafi as saying before he left. “How can this summit convene while there are two Arab presidents in jail?

“I am disgusted.”

Col. Gadhafi was referring to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who is in American custody, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who has been holed up in his West Bank headquarters for more than two years, besieged by Israeli forces.

Libya repeatedly has threatened to withdraw from the league, and Col. Gadhafi was a reluctant participant in the Tunis meeting, the last to arrive yesterday morning after Arab leaders telephoned to press him to turn up.

Col. Gadhafi is famous for creating drama at international meetings and his walkout was the only glitch in a meeting carefully prepared to prevent unwelcome surprises.

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said he hoped the withdrawal would not affect the preparations, which followed an abortive attempt to hold a summit in Tunis in March.

Col. Gadhafi left the conference hall as Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a controversial figure who has irritated conservative Persian Gulf Arab leaders, defended the league from what he said were attempts to undermine it.

“Some voices have risen up, calling for getting rid of the Arab League, or breaking it up,” he said, also criticizing Arab governments for failing to pay their dues.

Col. Gadhafi’s main concern appeared to be the Arab League’s failure to adopt his “white paper” proposal for a single Israeli-Palestinian state, instead of the widely accepted alternative of Israeli and Palestinian states side by side.

Thirteen heads of state and three prime ministers, as well as representatives from six other Arab countries, took part in the opening session at a heavily guarded conference center in the Tunisian capital.

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was among the Arab leaders who failed to show up. King Abdullah of Jordan left after the closed session yesterday.

Mr. Arafat spoke by video link, condemning attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians and denouncing recent Israeli actions in Gaza.

The Tunisian government unexpectedly called off the first attempt at a summit in March, arguing that some Arab governments were obstructing the reforms that the world expected.

This time, Arab foreign ministers have tried to ensure success by agreeing to all the key documents in advance.

But the two-day summit takes place at a time of deep pessimism in the Arab world about the ability of Arab leaders to help Palestinians under Israeli rule or end the occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies.

Mr. Moussa reflected the mood in his speech, saying the world’s problems had grown worse because of violence and the use of force, mismanagement of policy and “double standards.”

“This has affected the Arab world, which sees an unprecedented collapse of the chances of peace and a reversal in hopes of a stable and safe regional future,” he said.

Diplomats say the Arab leaders will not call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq or add any substance to the Middle East proposal they made in 2002, when they offered peace and normal relations in return for Israel’s withdrawal to the borders that existed before the 1967 war.

An Arab diplomat said the summit would criticize the “immoral and inhumane practices and crimes of the coalition forces” in Iraq and call for the trial of all those responsible, not just the U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

“The resolution says the occupation should end as soon as possible, and that the United Nations should have a role that is central and effective in rebuilding institutions,” he added.

Arab diplomats say the summit will endorse democracy and human rights, but activists say that without a timetable or a plan of action, their promises could turn out to be empty.

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