Arafat, Mubarak, Abdullah Sit Out Arab Summit

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Palestinians are hoping that Arab leaders at an Arab League summit will go ahead with plans to vote on a Saudi peace initiative despite the absence of several key leaders, including Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, a leading Palestinian official said on Wednesday.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah is due to present a landmark initiative to end the Israeli-Arab conflict at the summit, which reportedly will offer normalized ties or peace with Israel in exchange for land Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day war.

Nevertheless, Jordan's King Abdullah II apparently followed the lead of Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Wednesday, canceling his participation in the two-day forum opening on Wednesday in Beirut, reportedly because of security concerns.

Arafat's participation in the conference has been in question for weeks due to Israeli restrictions on his travel abroad.

The PA announced late Tuesday evening that Arafat had decided against attending the summit shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a television interview that "the conditions have not been met" that would allow Arafat to go to Beirut.

Top PA official Saeb Erekat decried Sharon's decision not to allow Arafat to go to Beirut unless he fulfilled preconditions.

Sharon said that Arafat would have to make a statement in Arabic to his people calling for an end to violence and he said the U.S. would have to agree to Israel's preventing Arafat's return if terrorism broke out while he was away.

The U.S. had encouraged Israel to allow Arafat to attend the summit, regardless if he met any conditions. But Mubarak had warned Arafat earlier that he had better stay in Ramallah because Israel might not allow him to return.

"It is the most despicable action," Erekat said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "It adds fuel to the fire and sends the message of bad faith."

Erekat said it would be impossible for the Palestinians to trust that Israel would implement and honor any future agreements since it did not honor a previous understanding to permit him freedom of movement.

He accused Sharon of "killing the Palestinian moderate camp" but said nevertheless he hoped the Saudi peace initiative would go ahead as planned.

"I really hope the Arabs go ahead with their plan," Erekat said. "We will support them as Palestinians."

Despite his absence, Arafat will nevertheless address the conference by satellite from his West Bank headquarters. "He will reiterate our commitments to peace," Erekat said, but declined to give further details.

Mubarak's Absence More Important

President Bush expressed the hope that Arafat's absence would not adversely affect the conference.

"The President hopes that the meeting in Beirut will focus on ways to find peace, as opposed to [taking] attendance," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Tuesday.

"The President believes that no matter who goes, the ideas that were advanced by Crown Prince Abdullah can be very helpful in creating a consensus among Arab nations that there needs to be a path to peace in the Middle East," he said.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher was quoted as saying that whether or not Arafat attended "the summit will produce a collective and contractual commitment" based on the Saudi initiative.

But Middle East expert, Dr. Yossi Olmert, said on Wednesday that Mubarak's absence from the summit is the most critical development and downplayed the possibility of anything significant coming out of the conference.

"Clearly without Mubarak no meaningful decision [can be taken]," Olmert said in a telephone interview. "Nothing will come out of it."

Security Concerns

It was unclear why King Abdullah decided to stay away from the conference but Mubarak was staying home due to "domestic commitments," his Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said.

But according to Olmert there are two explanations for Mubarak and King Abdullah's choice not to attend the conference.

"One of them is security," Olmert said. They are concerned about possibility of an attack on the conference by the Islamic militant group Hizballah or even from the al Qaeda network, he added.

There have been media reports that the Iranian-backed Hizballah was planning a massive terror attack at the summit. Mubarak was already the target of assassination attempt in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1995, Olmert said.

The other explanation for their absence, is that they may have wanted to "distance themselves from extreme elements at the conference," which might call on them to sever ties with Israel, Olmert added.

U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan, considered among the moderate Arab states, are the only two Arab countries with full diplomatic ties with Israel. They have both been key players in the peace process during the last decade.

Olmert also noted that a number of other leaders are not attending the parley. Half of the 22 Arab League leaders are sending lower level representatives to the summit including Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sudan and Mauritania.

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