Arab summit begins on note of moderation Leaders at gathering are low-key

cast Israel as unwilling partner

June 23, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAIRO -- Arab nations meeting here are trying to reverse old roles in relations with Israel, with the Arab states suing for peace while casting Israel as the unwilling partner.

At the opening of their 21-nation summit yesterday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set a moderate tone for the meeting, claiming the high moral ground and avoiding any threats.

"We are not warmongers and we reject violence," Mubarak said. "We call upon the new Israeli government to cooperate with us. We ask Israel to strictly fulfill its pledges and commitments."

Arab officials organized the summit in response to the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister, but have virtually ruled out any strong action -- such as a freeze in negotiations or a renewal of the Arab boycott.

This low-key tone is designed to play well with the United States, which has urged restraint. And it will avoid giving Netanyahu justification for carrying out his election threats to slow down the peace process.

"None of us want to return to war and destruction, or return to the state when there was no war and no peace," Mubarak said.

But the moderate line is a difficult one to maintain at the summit, which includes hard-line states such as Syria and Libya, which have pushed for a tougher stance against Israel.

Libya's president, Muammar Gadhafi, arrived at the Cairo meeting by defying the U.N. ban on air travel from Libya. The flamboyant leader flew on a Libyan jet from Tripoli and emerged wearing resplendent white robes to walk hand-in-hand with Mubarak.

The differences among the Arab nations were, so far, kept behind closed doors at the Cairo summit. Only Mubarak and Tunisia's President Zine Ben Ali, chairman of the Arab League, spoke publicly at the opening session, and reporters were kept far away from the summit participants.

The summit is supposed to end today, after more closed sessions, with a final communique. If the initial draft of that communique is not changed, it will be cause for little concern by either Israel or the United States.

The U.S. has urged the Arabs not to "close the door" on continuing negotiations.

Netanyahu, elected May 29, has said he supports the peace process but has laid down conditions that contradict Israel's previous promises during negotiations.

Most unpalatable to Israel will be a call in the summit communique for a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem. The Arab world has made similar declarations before, but Netanyahu made opposition to both a hallmark of his campaign.

The communique is expected to follow the theme outlined yesterday by Mubarak, who strongly urged the Israelis to abide by their agreements with the Palestinians, and to continue negotiations with Syria and Lebanon.

"If any party choses to select what to negotiate and what not to negotiate, then this means that the other parties have the same right," Mubarak said. "This puts the peace process back to the zero point, or would even undermine it entirely."

Mubarak called on Israel to make "a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Lebanon, and recognize the Palestinian people's legitimate political rights."

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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