The Middle East is on the brink of "total chaos," the head of the Arab League warned yesterday as the group's leaders began arriving in Beirut to discuss the unremitting violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Arab summit that begins tomorrow may be the most important in years. But an atmosphere of anxiety and gloom hangs over the conference, as expressed yesterday by Amr Moussa, the Arab League's Secretary-General.
Mr. Moussa said the region faces "either justice, peace and progress or total chaos and escalating confrontations with consequences nobody can predict."
Chief among the challenges Arab leaders face is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At the summit, they will consider a Saudi proposal for a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and the Arab world.
The prospects for such an ambitious plan seem dim; the two sides are having difficulty negotiating even a truce, and the Israelis are refusing to say whether Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will be allowed to attend the Beirut summit.
Yesterday, Palestinian and Israeli sources said U.S. peace envoy Anthony Zinni had presented them with a new ceasefire proposal intended to bridge the differences over the pace of implementing a truce.
The Palestinians are advocating a much faster timetable than the Israelis, in an effort to set up full-fledged discussions leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
The Israelis seemed set to accept General Zinni's proposal, but then the Palestinians called off a three-way meeting to discuss them. The slow pace of the talks has made the Israelis reluctant to release Mr. Arafat from his compound in Ramallah, where he is penned in by Israeli tanks, to head for Beirut.
A Palestinian spokesman estimated yesterday that the chances of Mr. Arafat making it to the summit were "50-50." However, the Israelis are under pressure from Washington, their most important ally, to let him attend.
Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush, said yesterday he believes Israel should give serious consideration to allowing Mr. Arafat to attend. A decision may come today or early tomorrow.
The Americans seem to be banking on Arab agreement to the Saudi peace plan at the Beirut summit. "The President believes it is time for Arab nations in the region to seize the moment, to create a better environment for peace to take root," Mr. Fleischer said.
The Saudi plan would offer Israel normal relations with the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal from territory it occupied in the 1967 war, and the creation of a Palestinian state. Although this mirrors the many United Nations resolutions on the issue, it is by no means clear that it would be acceptable to the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon.
Moreover, the Arab countries are having difficulties even among themselves in agreeing on some of the details, the most important of which is how to handle the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees.
As he opened yesterday's meeting of Arab foreign ministers, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud called for the return of refugees to their former homes. "We want peace, not surrender. We will not accept anything less than regaining our firm rights," he said.
But an unlimited right to return would be utterly unacceptable to Israel, because a mass influx of Palestinians would threaten the country's existence as a Jewish state.
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