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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 17:06 GMT
Arab summit: The BBC's correspondents
Frank Gardner in Beirut, Caroline Hawley in Jerusalem and Hosam El Sokkari from the BBC Arabic Service answered your questions in a live forum.

The video will be posted shortly.

An Arab summit to discuss a Saudi peace plan for the Middle East has opened in Beirut, with the Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders all staying away.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said he will not attend the summit after Israel refused to drop its conditions for lifting a travel ban that has kept him in the West Bank since December.

The United States had been putting pressure on Israel to allow Mr Arafat to attend the summit, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says the Palestinian leader must first declare a ceasefire.

There are now concerns among top American officials that this will lead to a hardening of attitudes at the Beirut talks.

What impact will Mr Arafat's absence have on the Beirut talks? What are the implications for Middle East peace? What can now be achieved at the summit?


Transcript:


Bridget Kendall:

Frank, the summit has ended, there has been this joint declaration. Let me ask you first of all, despite all the difficulties and problems - chaos even that there seemed to be yesterday - is there a feeling now that this summit has achieved a breakthrough?


Frank Gardner:

Yes, there is very much so. All the delegates that I have been speaking to - foreign ministers, head of states - that we've spoken to in the last few minutes are being very upbeat about this. They are saying, well really now we've done our part, the ball is very fairly and squarely in Israel's court. They are saying that they came here to discuss and endorse this peace place - they've now done it. The bottom line is this: the Arabs are prepared to make peace with Israel and recognise its sovereignty within its original borders providing Israel fulfils certain conditions. Those are: a full withdrawal from all the Arab land that they conquered and occupied in 1967; recognition of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital and a right of return of refugees and that could well be the sticking point because of course Israel is not interested in suddenly opening its borders to hundreds of thousands if not even millions of Palestinian refugees. They are saying this is the broad framework, it is now going to be passed under the aegis of the Arab League to the UN Security Council and there they hope it will be adopted and implemented. That's the theory anyhow.


Bridget Kendall:

H. Abboud, Kuwait: Why is it that some Arab leaders chose not to attend the summit, specially those with "normal" Israeli ties? How significant is this move? Mahmoud, Egypt:Do you think that the absence of President Mubarak and King Abdullah has an impact on the decisions taken at the summit?


Frank Gardner:

Well, I think it definitely lessened the impact of this summit. It hasn't stopped the declaration from being passed. It wasn't that those two countries boycotted the summit - they both sent delegations - Egypt sent its foreign minister and its prime minister. The Jordanians sent a delegation with their ministers as well and they had the authority to sign and endorse this document - so it hasn't stopped it. But definitely it has lessened the impact.

There are all sorts of conspiracy theories going around as to why exactly they didn't come. One theory I have been told by an insider is that President Mubarak, the Egyptian President, didn't really want to come here and be berated by Bashar Assad, the Syrian President, for still having ties with Israel. But a very senior Egyptian delegate said - no, no, no - that's not true at all - he simply didn't want to endorse a summit where Yasser Arafat was prevented from attending. So you can read it whichever way you like.


Bridget Kendall:

Aviam, USA: To what extent has Mr Arafat's absence affected the summit and the peace talks? Can what's happened there really be taken seriously when such a key player is absent?


Frank Gardner:

Yes it can is the answer. The devil will be in the detail and the actual implementation of this plan. When this summit was planned a long time ago, it was known that Yasser Arafat may or may not be able to attend. He's been bottled up in Ramallah in the West Bank for some months so it was never certain that he would attend. What he was supposed to do on the first day of the summit was to address it live in a video conference by satellite link from Ramallah and what happened was that the Lebanese delayed that and in the end prevented it - there was a huge bickering row between the Lebanese and the Palestinians over this. The Palestinian delegation walked out - Yasser Arafat went ahead and gave his broadcast live on Al Jazeera and to another network as well which really annoyed the Lebanese.

So there was this factional in-fighting which I am afraid has given the summit a bit of a bad name and has pointed out to people that there is a lot of discord among Arabs themselves. So they're now trying to patch up those differences and say yes, Arafat is behind this. But of course all of this has been overshadowed by events on the ground back in Israel and the Palestinian territories.


Bridget Kendall:

Let's go now to Caroline Hawley who is in Jerusalem. Caroline, can I ask you first what is the atmosphere there following yesterday's bombing?


Caroline Hawley:

There is a mood really of fear on both sides. The Israelis are wondering where they can be safe because of course there had been security alerts here, there had been expectations that Palestinian militants might try to strike over the Passover holiday. Israeli security forces were on high alert and yet a suicide bomber managed to walk into a hotel lobby, past the security guard into a dining hall and there blew himself up. Twenty guests were killed, 80 people are still in hospital, 20 of them are critically wounded - Israelis are frightened and now as Israel decides how it's going to respond, Palestinians are frightened too. We are getting reports from across the West Bank and Gaza of people stockpiling food. The Palestinian authority has evacuated schools and its buildings. So really a very high level of fear on both sides.


Bridget Kendall:

Sarah Dorman, USA: Given all this can the Arab summit really be taken seriously when there's this latest violence that's happening in Israel? How much is all that overshadowing their response to what's just been happening in Beirut?


Caroline Hawley:

I think most people here see it as completely irrelevant. They are focusing on what's happening on the ground. Now at the summit - Yasser Arafat wasn't there and many of Yasser Arafat's people didn't want him to go there under Israeli conditions. I think Israelis in a way have actually been looking and laughing at many of the disputes we've seen displayed at the Arab summit. But I think for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples now they're very much focusing on what's happening on the ground. It does seem deeply ironic that while Arabs are talking about their long-term vision for peace, both Israelis and Palestinians are really digging in now for what appears to be a military confrontation - that's certainly the fear here.


Bridget Kendall:

Mohamad Hindawi, Egypt: Most people are asking whether Arabs will support normalizing relation with Israel in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied land. But in my opinion, the more important question is whether Sharon will accept such a deal.


Caroline Hawley:

I think it is the key question. Certainly Ariel Sharon has been the champion of building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. He would have to show a very, very significant political about-turn to suddenly want to withdraw from all the occupied territories back to the 1967 borders. So I think it is a key question. I think that Arab leaders when they proposed this didn't think that the Ariel Sharon government would take it up. We've had Arab officials saying really they were appealing to international and crucially to Israeli public opinion with this peace proposal.


Bridget Kendall:

Timothy Stinson, United States: What is being done by the International Community about Israel's occupation of the West Bank? Or, the fact that Ariel Sharon has held Mr. Arafat hostage in his own land with the use of U.S military weapons, with a promise to keep him out of his home if he attends the summit.

From where you are, what does it seem that the international community is doing?


Caroline Hawley:

The American peace envoy, Anthony Zinni, is now in the region. He was sent back on his third mission and that was when things escalated very badly here earlier in the month and when Israel sent its troops into the very heart of Palestinian refugee camps and that was obviously a significant military escalation. The Americans sent back Anthony Zinni, he has been trying hard to coax both sides towards a ceasefire. He's been shuttling back and forth. We understand that this afternoon he is talking to a senior Palestinian official. He doesn't seem to be getting very far and once again violence on the ground is undermining his mission but nevertheless the Americans are trying.

The UN, people will recall, recently passed an unprecedented resolution affirming the vision of a future Palestinian state. But certainly the view among Palestinians is that no one is doing what they should be to end the Israeli occupation. That the Americans are providing Israel with weapons. That the international community may be passing resolutions. But it's not putting any real clout or weight behind trying to enforce them and that whatever is happening in Beirut - whether the Arab leaders are meeting to discuss the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or not - they don't really care about what's going on here enough to do anything about it. What they say is that it's another summit, it will make proclamations but it won't actually make any difference on the ground.


Bridget Kendall:

One question Caroline to specify the mood at the moment. This latest suicide bombing came at a very important time in the Jewish religious calendar - Passover. Is there a feeling that that act of violence and the possible Israeli response to it which might be about to come is going to be just one in the latest round of escalation of violence or that this is something different and more serious which might put these attempts you've been talking about by Zinni and others and might make them entirely irrelevant?


Caroline Hawley:

I think there is a real sense of foreboding here. Israeli officials have talked about the Palestinian attack saying that it crossed a red line. What Israel feels is that there have been a number of attacks on Israeli civilians and on soldiers and settlers over the past few days and that they have acted with restraint that they haven't retaliated because the American envoy, Anthony, Zinni is here and because he is trying to get a ceasefire in place. They feel now that that has been rewarded with this Palestinian attack. That Yasser Arafat has not done enough to try to stop these kind of attacks and that now certainly the Israeli government is under heavy pressure to hit back and I think the sense is that it will do that unless Yasser Arafat acts as Israel wants him to act. They are calling for him to immediately go on television and in Arabic speak to his people and say we must have a stop to these attacks. Now the Palestinians are saying, we can't stop attacks - we can't deliver a ceasefire unless you, Israel, are prepared to give us a political horizon, a political way out of the conflict - that's the only way to solve it.

So things look as intractable as ever and I think certainly the sense is here that there is a very risk of a more significant military confrontation than we've seen in the past and of an escalation that, as you said, could make what has happened in the Arab summit in Beirut, at least for moment, irrelevant.


Bridget Kendall:

I'm joined here in the studio by Hosam El Sokkari, who is from the BBC's Arabic Service. I know Hosam that you've been scanning the Arab press from around the world. What's the feeling you are getting from there? We've had a question from David Goran, USA: What is the feeling among the Arab countries about the escalating violence in the Middle East?


Hosam El Sokkari:

Well the feeling is there is a general mood in the Arab press is that people are waiting for the Americans and for the international community to start doing something. Clearly the Arab states have expressed a strong message today that they are willing to start negotiations on the basis of the Saudi initiative which will give the Israelis what they have been wanting to have for quite a long time and will give the Palestinians what they have been claiming. So it seems like a straight deal and what is left now is for the Americans to put some pressure on Sharon to accept the deal and to start negotiations.

The problem we are having now is that they do not like the situation to be seen as an escalation of violence between two parties who seem to be behaving irrationally. Many of the comments in the Arab media reflect their view that what is seen now is violence within the context of occupation and they see this as a response and as a reaction to Israeli aggression and they want the Israeli community, as reflected in some of the comments today, to do something about it and to offer the Palestinians some horizon and some future.


Bridget Kendall:

Raymond Killah, Scotland: If Arab states were serious about the Saudi peace plan, would the more militant states not have to ensure that groups such as Hammas cease all terrorist activities against Israel before there's any hope of negotiations taking place?


Hosam El Sokkari:

I think the plan is clear in the sense that it offers peace in return for land. If we come back to an earlier question about those attended and those who did not attend. It seems quite interesting that the three leaders that did not attend are leaders of countries and states or entities that already recognise Israel and have direct formal talks with them. It's the Egyptian President, the Jordanian King and Arafat. Had it been the other way around and some other countries who did not seem to have straightforward, clear, formal deals with the Israelis, it could have been seen otherwise. But now those who attended the summit are those who represent all the Arab countries and states that still have an issue with normalising relations with Israel.

It's very difficult to ask the Arab states now to start actioning part of their plan before having an approval from the Israelis and also an approval from the Americans because what has been reflected also in comments, very strongly, is the fact that probably the Americans haven't sent a strong message of support for the Saudi plan. They have described it as a positive development in the Middle East but there wasn't a clear strong signal that shows American support of the Saudi plan and an intention to put pressure on Israel to accept it.


Bridget Kendall:

Susan Stein, USA: Can we believe that the Crown Prince is sincere when the government controlled Saudi press is filled with the most viscous anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism?


Hosam El Sokkari:

There are two issues here: one is about the sincerity of the Prince and we have also to understand and to remember that the Saudis have always been a little bit conservative towards making these initiatives and it comes as a very strong signal from a country that has quite a weight in the region, that the plan and the initiative comes from Saudi Arabia. I don't think we can afford to ignore the importance of this message and I think there are no alternatives because the other alternative is to wait to see the escalations go further and further and the hardliners gaining more support.

As for the comments in the Saudi press, I think they have to be seen again within the context of the events that we have seeing in the past months. They reflect a little bit of suspicion to towards the Americans, on the basis of the lack of support that they see for Arab initiatives and Palestinian demands. .


Bridget Kendall:

I'd just like to pick up on that point and go back to Frank Gardner in Beirut on this question of the Saudi peace plan. Is the feeling there Frank that precisely because this comes from Saudi Arabia, often a country seen to be very conservative on these issues, that it is something new and something really significant from the Arab world and carries more authority with other Arab nations?


Frank Gardner:

Yes, that's very much the case. There's nothing essentially new in this plan, the novelty lies in the fact that it has come from Saudi Arabia - one of the biggest and staunchest opponents of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians. So in a way, if the regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia can offer a peace plan then all the other states will fall into line.

I think briefly we have to look at all of this in perspective. There are two levels to this conflict: one is fighting on the ground and the immediate solution to that is the ceasefire. The other level is the dispute over what actually the final terms of peace will be. What this summit is trying to do is to jump to that second level - to give the Palestinians something to aim for.

If Israel accepts the notion of this peace plan as it's set out today here in Beirut then it will be that much easier for Yasser Arafat to reign in militants and to be tough on them because he's going to be able to say - look behave because this is going to come - if you're good, then you'll get at least the West Bank and Gaza back. The problem is there is no incentive at the moment until Israel actually accepts in principle the idea of land for peace. They need that incentive - Yasser Arafat needs it in order to control his people otherwise he loses his own power. But of course that's not how the Americans see it and it's certainly not how the Israelis see it.


Bridget Kendall:

Just another issue that's been very interesting at this summit and that's the role of Iraq where we've seen a new pledge from Iraq not to invade Kuwait - warm handshakes and an embrace on television with the Saudi chief representative. A question from Mark Lowerson, USA: I have read reports that the US is only now getting involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict because it needs support for possible action against Iraq from the surrounding Arab states. So how does that play into what's been going on in Beirut in the last couple of days?


Frank Gardner:

There's a lot of truth in that, I think. Iraq is on best behaviour. It doesn't want to be attacked by the United States although it doesn't think that it is imminent. They are trying to stress the whole solidarity thing. I interviewed the Iraqi foreign minister, a little while ago and he assured me that he had the support of all Arab nations. I think privately they are telling Iraq - you've got to behave, you've got to let in the UN weapons inspectors - don't give the Americans any pretext, any excuse for attacking you because it will be bad not only for Iraq but for the whole region.

Certainly in Dick Cheney's recent trip to the Middle East, he was told in no uncertain terms by all the Arab governments that he visited were not interested in supporting a second front against Iraq perhaps not at all but certainly not until you, America, sort out the Palestinian/Israeli problem.


Bridget Kendall:

Finally, going back to you Caroline in Jerusalem. We've had a question Kyaw Min Soe, Myanmar, Burma, talking about the peace plan. For it to mean anything, it has got to have various people coming on board: Yasser Arafat, the United States but also Israel. He asks: How could Arab leaders persuade Israel to commit to a peace plan? What do you see from where you are?


Caroline Hawley:

I think it's very difficult. I think what happens on the ground is crucial. I think Israelis feel that when they are being attacked in their cities - the coastal city of Netanya, yesterday - we've had attacks in Jerusalem and other cities inside Israel itself - not in the occupied territories. They feel that as long as they are attacked inside their cities, then when can they be safe and that it is not about land - it is not about giving up the occupied territories - the land that was taken in 1967 - that the Palestinians don't want to accept them within the 1967 borders. So I think as long as Israelis are being attacked, as long as they don't feel safe when they go out for a coffee in Tel Aviv then it will be very hard to persuade Israeli public opinion and the Israeli Government that if they withdrew from the 1967 borders that that would bring peace. There is a key issue there of what happens on the ground. As much as anything it is really up to the Palestinians and what happens on the ground will be what persuades Israel over its next moves.


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