Sunday, March 28, 2004

TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisian officials yesterday blamed some of their Arab neighbors for the collapse of an Arab League summit, saying opposition to moderate resolutions on democracy and Israel had come principally from traditional Gulf countries.

“Let them go back to their tents,” said one Tunisian official after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali called off the summit amid bickering over President Bush’s democracy initiative and a proposal to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Another said it was time for the Arabs to “assume a modern, civilized posture.”

Mr. Ben Ali pulled the plug on the summit shortly before midnight Saturday when it became clear that the Arab leaders were not prepared to sign off on a draft resolution prepared by his government.

Several were unwilling to endorse language calling for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of last week’s assassination by Israel of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and continuing military action in the Palestinian territories.

The particular clause that the Arab leaders found unacceptable called for “settling conflicts through peaceful means,” according to the Tunisians, who made the draft language available.

Another disputed clause called for Arab League countries “to pursue comprehensive reforms … in the political, economic, social, cultural and educational fields by further consolidating the foundations of citizenship and equality, … fostering the role of civil society, promoting the role of Arab women in line with our religion and civilized values.”

In Cairo, the Egyptian media charged that Mr. Ben Ali had refused to explain his reasons for canceling the summit to Arab League foreign ministers who already were meeting in Tunis — a charge the Tunisians rejected.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak offered to host a new summit “at the earliest time that can be agreed on,” according to the Associated Press. It said Mr. Mubarak expressed “surprise and regret” that the Tunisians had called off the meeting.

Later yesterday, Yemeni Foreign Ministry officials said Mr. Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had agreed during a phone conversation that the summit would be held in Cairo on April 16, four days after Mr. Mubarak meets with President Bush in Texas.

The meeting, which was to have begun today, had been expected to give new impetus to a Saudi proposal to recognize Israel in exchange for a return to its pre-1967 borders and to fashion a response to Mr. Bush’s plan to expand democratic values in the Arab world.

But Mr. Ben Ali had been skeptical from the beginning, stressing in private conversations — including one with The Washington Times — that most Arab leaders were hostile to any discussion of human rights, democracy, elections and the need for an increased role for women in Arab societies.

A source close to Mr. Ben Ali said the president also had been concerned because several Arab leaders were planning to skip the meeting, either for health or political reasons.

A summit packed with vitriolic statements toward the United States and Israel also could have undermined Tunisia’s effort to project an image of itself as a moderate Arab state that is open to deepening ties with the West, the source said. Mr. Ben Ali had paid a successful visit to Washington just last month.

Despite the president’s reservations, planning went forward with a massive deployment of security forces and 79 cargo planes, which landed during a three-day span with equipment required by Arab potentates.

Yesterday, the planes were being reloaded to go home, and about 700 journalists accredited to the summit were scrambling for airline reservations.

The official Tunisian news agency Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP) wrote yesterday that the Arab countries had “missed a new and precious opportunity to appear in the eyes of the world as an active regional community, capable of adjusting to the changes on the international scene.”

• Joshua Mitnick contributed to this report.

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