by George Baghdadi
(IPS) DAMASCUS --
Crown Prince Abdullah's proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict has gained support in the West but is widening rifts in an already splintered Arab world.
Prince Abdullah's plan broadly envisages a pan-Arab normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for the land it seized in the 1967 war. The proposal was unveiled last month but details have not been made public yet.
Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah, the only Arab countries to have peace deals with Israel, have endorsed the initiative. But Syria and Lebanon have expressed misgivings about any settlement with Israel that omits the right of Palestinian refugees to return home.
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and his Lebanese counterpart Emile Lahoud said in a joint statement in Beirut yesterday that the Arab summit due in Beirut later this month should be an occasion to "strengthen Arab solidarity and support the steadfastness of the Palestinians in their struggle."
The two presidents said in the communique that any settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict should "ensure the liberation of all occupied Arab territories and guarantee the right of the Palestinian people to return to their homeland and to establish an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital."
Beirut is concerned that the Saudi proposal makes no mention of an estimated 3.5 million Palestinian refugees, up to 350,000 of whom live in Lebanon.
The communique called for elimination of Jewish settlements in areas occupied by Israel, another demand rejected by Israel and excluded from Prince Abdullah's proposal. The leaders were clearly more bent on promoting the Palestinian intifada than on endorsing political concessions.
Assad and Lahoud avoided any direct reference to the initiative floated by the Saudi Crown Prince, who has always supported both countries in their struggle against the Israelis. The communique came at the end of a historic visit to Lebanon by President Assad, the first by a Syrian leader to the neighboring country in 27 years.
But Syria has long differed with Saudi Arabia over the steps towards peace. Where the Saudis stress normalization of relations with Israel, Syria has always focused first on full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, with development of bilateral relations to follow.
Prince Abdullah's proposals, or at least the vague version now going the rounds, do not make clear what comes first -- recognition or withdrawal. This troubles Syrians who believe the Israelis might trick them into giving recognition -- and then refuse to withdraw. The Israelis have broken withdrawal agreements with the Palestinians several times, Syrian commentators say.
In the face of such concerns, Assad was due to travel to Riyadh to discuss Abdullah's proposals, diplomats said.
That move came in the face of apprehensions over what might be surrendered to the Israelis. "Damascus and Beirut have been concerned by information received through diplomatic channels that the Saudi overture might result in a slight modification of the 1967 demarcation lines," a diplomat said on condition of anonymity. "Both remain adamant on recovering every inch of the Golan Heights and the Shebaa Farms."
Israel has refused so far to give up the Golan Heights which it captured from Syria in 1967 and subsequently annexed in 1981. Israel insists that it will not restore Syrian access to the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish state's largest source of fresh water. This became the stumbling block in peace talks launched between the two countries in January 2000 that ended within weeks.
Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi rejected the Saudi blueprint last weekend, and threatened to withdraw from the Arab League for advocating what he called "defeatist" policies. Gadhafi's statement sent the Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa rushing to the Libyan resort of Sirte to calm the maverick leader. Moussa has launched a diplomatic offensive to avert a split within the Arab League on the eve of the summit conference in Beirut on Mar. 27-28.
Iran, which has remained conspicuously silent on Abdullah's initiative, is another nation to watch. Iran is not a member of the 22-nation Arab League, but it is a key ally of Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, and wields considerable influence in the Middle East.
The Saudi plan has been welcomed by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union.
President George W. Bush is reported to have thanked Prince Abdullah for his ideas in a telephone conversation last week. Officials in Washington have said the plan is short on details but offers a window of opportunity for ending the Palestinian-Israeli bloodbath. French President Jacques Chirac expressed his own and EU support to the "ideas and visions" in the plan.
"Whether it succeeds or not, Abdullah's plan may help Saudi Arabia improve its ties with the United States, its closest Western ally and foreign backer of more than 50 years," said a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs.
March 4, 2002 (http://albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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