Between Two Hotels in Beirut and Netanya

by Hazem Saghiyeh
Rarely has an Arab Summit had such positive implications as the Beirut meeting of March 2002. Compared with the Khartoum summit after the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, which rejected reconciliation, negotiation and recognition of Israel, or with the summit of 1978 in Baghdad that "isolated" Egypt as a reaction to the Camp David treaty, the distance covered by Arab rationality becomes apparent. Yet this rationality needed the September 11th tragedy to express itself, and remained restricted to some limited political elites, while the masses confronted it with animosity. Radical positions like this one caused some difficulties for the Beirut summit. But what about the additional counter-radicalism manifest in the administrations of Ariel Sharon and George Bush?

On March 28, 2002, it looked like there was a change from the past. Arab leaders emphasized that peace is their strategic option in settling the Middle East conflict. In a revival of Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, and the land-for-peace formula, as sensibly included in the Prince Abdallah initiative, participants pledged to recognize the Jewish state if it fulfilled its major and numerous obligations towards peace.

However, the conciliatory effort was not sufficient to deter Sharon, who was detaining Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. When Sharon granted Arafat "permission" to leave, he attached a number of humiliating conditions: the Palestinian leader was to accept his enemy's format for a ceasefire. If he incited against Israel in Beirut, or if a suicide attack took place in his absence, the door would be closed for his return to his country.

Thus, Arabs talking peace looked like a cruel father who wanted to marry his daughter off to a man who abuses her. Washington issued no more than lukewarm reservations against the Israeli humiliation of Arafat, far from constituting pressures. Bush requested Sharon to permit the Palestinian leader to travel, but this type of kindness with the Israeli general is more like collecting water in a sieve. Sure enough, the White House Press Secretary at the time, Ari Fleischer, took over. Standing in the White House garden, he said that the Jewish state is a sovereign state, and sovereign states have the right to decide what is appropriate for them.

What is appropriate for Sharon is to suffocate Arafat and prevent him from contacting the outside world. So be it. Perhaps symbols play their game, pushing in the same direction. In 1982, Sharon did everything he could to deport the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Beirut. Because of the two, and the Lebanese militias that supported one or the other, and also because of regional powers that benefited from their feud, the Lebanese capital was destroyed, as is still evident around the city today.

Hence, Arafat could not do more than address the 2002 leaders' meeting by video conferencing. This, in itself, was sufficient to inflame Arab sentiments and to convince those who were not previously convinced that the Palestinian leader was a prisoner in a video box as well as a prisoner in his headquarters.

Yet the Palestinian leader's problems did not end there. In Beirut, where his Syrian and Lebanese foes are in control, the satellite broadcast was obstructed, and when the Palestinian delegation left the conference hall in protest, observers confirmed that the intentions to settle old Palestinian-Syrian-Lebanese scores were there. Palestinian members did not return until they had received guarantees regarding the speech. At the same time, Lebanese students were demonstrating against the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Apparently, the ground was fertile with Arab disagreements and conflicts. Those who shied away from taking any responsibility, and those who were a bit envious because the peace initiative was associated with the name of the Saudi Crown Prince, were absent from the conference.

Also absent were those who wanted to fight with loud words only. Hosni Mubarak, President of the largest Arab country, did not show-up. Neither did the King of Jordan, nor the President of the United Arab Emirates, the Emirs of Qatar or Kuwait, or the Sultan of Oman. In response to this shrinkage that afflicted the Arab moderation bloc, including the two states that have diplomatic relations with Israel, the Libyan Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, from whom the Lebanese still demand the return of Imam Mousa Al Sadr, who "disappeared" in 1978 in Libya, was absent. So was then Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, and the Sudanese President, Omar Al Bashir. Apparently, it was embarrassing for many that Kofi Anan and Jose Maria Aznar would arrive, representing the United Nations and the European Union, while all these leaders did not. It looked like the whole world, or part of it for that matter, were more interested in the peace of the region than some of its own people.

Because of Lebanese and Arab considerations, the conference participants did not give the Palestinian refugee problem its due, a problem without which peace cannot be discussed seriously. All the Arab leaders had to do was look through a normal pair of binoculars out of their conference's venue to the south. Very few kilometers separated them from the camps of Sabra and Shatila, where Lebanese Palestinians live under conditions that bear no relationship to the "Arab brotherhood." This, and other indications, hung ominously over the potential for developing the initiative. It looked as if the leaders of the Arab world were bolder with their speech than with their actions, in the case of making peace, as well as in the case of making war. Now, at this historic moment, the unpleasant truth avoided for so long, became quite clear. It was not easy for the participants to brush aside the scenes of Beirut's destruction surrounding their hotel, resulting, one way or another, from an extended Arab-Arab civil war that the ideology of "brotherhood" aspires to forget.

What happened later to Iraq was not imaginable at the time. It was common belief that the destruction personified in Saddam's reign was more than enough, and that Arab leaders were to include him in an alliance that fortified their position and contained his extremism and destructive potential. And happen it did: for the first time since 1991, a partial rapprochement between Riyadh and Kuwait, and Baghdad. The Vice President of Iraq, Izzat el Doury, who had rarely smiled, was seen flashing large smiles, and occasional kisses.

The United States, which had already gone a long way toward its decision to wage war on Iraq, did not favorably receive this Arab concept of solidarity. Most probably, this "openness" to Baghdad was what dampened its already lukewarm willingness to pressure Sharon.

Yet the worst took place somewhere else. Before the summit adjourned, a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel in the coastal town of Netanya, where patrons were celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover. As a result of this, the most horrific and vicious operation in nine months, 20 people were killed, and over 170 were wounded. Negotiations under way for a ceasefire were threatened with collapse. Hamas had bombed the Beirut hotel in addition to the one in Netanya, leaving the Arabs in a situation much like Buridan's donkey, confused between two stacks of hay: Should it eat from this one or the other? When no clear and decisive condemnation was issued about the operation, the donkey survived death, but the summit was under threat. How could silence be the order of the day when the peace initiative, as claimed, was directed at Israeli public opinion? How could Sharon not utilize this excuse and refuse the Arab plan, especially when some Arab governmental positions, such as the Syrian, emphasized that supporting the Intifada was the twin of requesting peace.

The alliance among Israeli radicalism, American disregard, Arab-Arab contradictions and the Palestinian suicide attacks, was more than sufficient to destroy the conclusions of the Beirut Summit, which any similar future move should study, and feel the awe of moving toward peace in this warlike region.

- Writer, commentator and columnist for the Arabic Newspaper al-Hayat in London and has authored books on Pan-Arabism and Political Islam. This article is part of a series of views on the "Arab Peace Initiative" published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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Toward a Track-two Dialogue between Israelis and Syrians
Toward a New Arab Peace Initiative
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

Toward a Track-two Dialogue between Israelis and Syrians by Gerald Steinberg
Toward a New Arab Peace Initiative by Ambassador Robert H. Pelletreau
A Syrian Perspective on the Arab Peace Initiative by Dr. Murhaf Jouejati
The Arab Initiative Revisited and Revived by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The Arab Peace Initiative, boosting moderates by Hassan A. Barari
Arab Initiative Can Bring Peace and Normalcy by Judith Kipper
An Israeli View of the Arab Peace Initiative by Ambassador Shimon Shamir
The Feasibility of Peace and the Arab Peace Initiative by Nizar Abdel-Kader
There is No Alternative to Peace in the Middle East by Sa’ad Eddin Ibrahim