A missed opportunity

Summit: Arab leaders meeting in Beirut shouldn't squander the chance to offer a peace plan.

March 27, 2002

THE INCLINATION of Arab leaders at the Beirut summit today may be to focus on the empty chair.

Late last night, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced that he would not submit to Israeli conditions to secure permission to travel to Beirut.

The conditions set forth by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could have been met - to deliver a speech in Arabic to his people calling for a halt to violence and to support a cease fire. But Mr. Sharon's threat to block Mr. Arafat's return if suicide attacks continued changed the dynamic - and not for the better.

Mr. Sharon didn't do his American patrons any favors. President Bush had pushed for Mr. Arafat to attend the Arab League summit to allow for a full discussion of a Saudi peace initiative that some hoped could lead to a new dialogue in the 18-month-old conflict. But Mr. Sharon wanted the United States to sign off on his condition that he could bar Mr. Arafat's return - a ridiculous request.

Compounding the problem, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a moderate in the Arab world, also backed out of the Arab summit in solidarity with his Palestinian colleague.

Arab leaders in Beirut may well table the Saudi plan and spend precious time denouncing Israel, but the plight of the Palestinian people deserves their attention. A political settlement that secures Palestinians an independent state should be their focus - so why not show the world that they are serious about playing a role in this protracted and deadly fight?

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