No summit too high for Gaddafi

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The Independent Online
Arab summits should be taken seriously. And when leaders of the Arab world gathered in Cairo yesterday to remind the new right-wing Israeli government of its legal obligations to fulfil the "peace process" by withdrawing from occupied Arab land, it was an event of dramatic - if not historic - importance. But how to cope with the coup de theatre of Libya's most famous son?

Let us first recall how the official Libyan news agency, Jana, put it. "Reasserting the united natural extension of the Arab airspace," it breathlessly reported, "the leader of the revolution left Tripoli International Airport for Cairo on an aircraft of the Libyan Arab Airlines to attend the Arab summit."

Or, not to put too fine a point upon it, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi blithely broke UN sanctions by flying across the international frontier to Egypt to flaunt himself before the 20 Arab presidents, emirs and prime ministers in one of his finest costumes, a silver-vested number with a beige turban and diaphanous white robe which attracted the television cameras away from the more conventional summit delegates.

How are the Arabs, one asked oneself, to place the colonel's antics into perspective when the sombre mood of the conference was embraced by so much familiar rhetoric? A call for solidarity and a "unified Arab vision" was not going to grab the headlines of a world which needs to know of the growing fear - nay, panic - in the Middle East after the election of a right-wing government in Israel.

Yasser Arafat met President Hafez al-Assad for the first time since the day in 1993 when the PLO chairman told the Syrian leader that he had made a secret peace with Israel behind his back. Mr Assad also met King Hussein of Jordan, now officially at peace with Israel and collaborating in the new American-Israeli-Turkish alliance, a pact which threatens Syria.

The Egyptian host, President Hosni Mubarak, did warn grimly at the start of the summit that any party - he meant Israel, but diplomatically didn't say so - which reneged on the principles of the 1991 Madrid summit "would return the peace process to zero or simply totally destroy it". Over and over again the Arab leaders demanded the continuation of the land-for- peace formula to which they had subscribed - but which Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, now wants to abandon. A reworked draft communique appealed for help from Washington and Moscow in keeping the "peace process" alive, and demanded a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, something Mr Netanyahu has no intention of conceding.

But there he was, the leader of the Libyan revolution, nose tilted towards heaven, arriving in his white stretch limo outside the conference hall as his gunmen and gungirls - those famous long-haired amazons in camouflage fatigues who must fuel a thousand fantasies in any dictator's heart - ran alongside with their pistols and Kalashnikovs.

If an Arab leader's constant nightmare is his fear of assassination, then the size of the Libyan leader's entourage showed just how frightened the colonel must be. By this token, number two on the fear-of-sudden-death list was President Mubarak, whose posses of armoured vans bristled with rifles. King Hussein came a short third while number four, predictably, was Mr Arafat, his limousine followed by a squad of clapped-out Peugeots bulging with plain-clothes gentlemen shrieking themselves hoarse into two-way radios.