BEIRUT, Lebanon - An Arab League summit, where hopes had run high for a new Middle East peace initiative launched by Saudi Arabia, dissolved into chaos yesterday when Palestinian delegates stormed out and hard-line rhetoric from Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened to overshadow a conciliation effort by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.
The turmoil at the opening of the two-day summit came on the day that a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded hotel lobby in Netanya, on Israel's Mediterranean coast, where throngs were gathering for the ritual meal that begins the Passover holiday.
Palestinian delegates stalked out of the Beirut summit when Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, chairman of the gathering, refused to give the most prominent place on the program to a live broadcast by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who on Tuesday decided not to attend the summit rather than accept conditions on his travel imposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Palestinians demanded that Arafat speak at the beginning of a late-morning session, ahead of kings, princes and prime ministers from the 22 nations of the Arab League.
"The speaker is Palestine, and Palestine should get special consideration," Palestinian Foreign Minister Farouq Kadoumi told Qatar's Al-Jazeera television, which broadcast the Arafat speech that had been intended for the summit. "As the word of Palestine has been rejected, why should we stay?"
The leaders of Egypt and Jordan skipped the summit at the last minute. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said his absence was to protest Israel's treatment of Arafat, and Jordan said it had security concerns for King Abdullah II.
In Washington, a U.S. official who works in Middle Eastern issues said the absence of Mubarak and King Abdullah was baffling. "It's inexplicable. It's a huge mess there. If there was any moment over the last 50 years that the Arabs could agree on something, it would be to endorse the Saudis' peace plan. There's no domestic opposition. Rivalry among the leaders is the best explanation."
Explaining why Arafat was not allowed to address the conference through a live broadcast, Lahoud said summit officials feared the Israelis would try to interfere with the transmission.
Prince Abdullah was by turns conciliatory and tough toward Israel and Arafat in his televised speech. But Syrian President Assad, whose country is an arch-foe of both Israel and Arafat, demanded that Arab nations sever any ties they might have with the Jewish state, declaring: "Now is the time to save the Palestinian people from the new Holocaust."
Addressing himself to the Israeli public, Prince Abdullah said that "the use of violence, for more than 50 years, has only resulted in more violence and destruction, and the Israeli people are as far as they have ever been from security and peace. ... The time has come for Israel to put its trust in peace.
"I would further say to the Israeli people that if their government abandons the policy of force and oppression and embraces true peace, we will not hesitate to accept the right of Israeli people to live in security with the people of the region," he said.
Arafat said Palestinians rather than Israelis were the true victims of terror in the Middle East, but that Palestinians "welcome ... the courageous initiative declared by Crown Prince Abdullah regarding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."
"God willing, this initiative will be translated during this Arab summit into an Arab initiative for a peace of the brave between us and the Israeli people and the Jews worldwide," Arafat said.
Prince Abdullah did not offer a detailed plan, and the summit set up a seven-member panel - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan - to draft a text of the initiative.
Al-Safir, a leading Lebanese newspaper, quoting diplomatic sources, said that basic elements of the plan would be Israeli withdrawal from lands conquered in the 1967 Middle East war, establishment of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, and assurances of a fair solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees, in return for which Arab states "will establish natural, peaceful relations with Israel."
Prince Abdullah asked that Arab League members unanimously endorse the initiative and address it to the United Nations Security Council. There seemed no chance that Arab governments that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel would deal directly with the Israeli government, given that they spurned overtures for direct talks made by the Israelis shortly after Prince Abdullah said he would offer an initiative.
Assad took a much tougher tack, and there were suggestions that the refusal of a prime-time slot for Arafat and the nonfunctioning of the translation system while Prince Abdullah was speaking reflected an attempt to make the hard-line Syrian position the dominant view of the summit.
Assad declared: "The more we want peace, the more we should support the intifada. Israel exists through killing, expansionism and international actions" that condone Israeli aggression. He said "negotiations are useless unless there is a third party" other than the United States to sponsor the Palestinian-Israeli talks.
Israeli officials said they were not surprised by the direction the Arab summit had taken.
"There is nothing new under the sun," said Gideon Meir, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "The only Arab countries that were really for peace were Jordan and Egypt, so we didn't have any expectations."