Arab leaders say they may cut ties with Israel

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The Independent Online

An Arab summit called to confront a frightening and deadly upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence ended Sunday with a declaration that Arabs may consider cutting ties with Israel, but did not call on them to do so.

An Arab summit called to confront a frightening and deadly upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence ended Sunday with a declaration that Arabs may consider cutting ties with Israel, but did not call on them to do so.

Arabs "hold Israel responsible for any steps taken in regard to relations with Israel by Arab countries, including their cancelation," said the final declaration, read by Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid to a live television audience across the region.

Referring to establishing new ties, the declaration also said: "Arab leaders assert in the light of the collapse of the peace process their commitment to standing up to Israeli attempts to infiltrate the Arab world under any name and to the halting of establishing any relations with Israel,"

The carefully worded statement addressed what had emerged as the most contentious issue before the leaders meeting in Cairo: Whether ties several have with the Jewish state should be reconsidered.

Libya had walked out Saturday, the first day of the two-day summit, saying it was frustrated that the gathering would not clearly call for an end to ties with Israel.

Egypt and Jordan have diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritania, a west African nation that is a member of the Arab League, opened diplomatic relations with Israel in January. Oman, which along with Qatar had lower level ties, suspending relations Oct. 12, closing Israel's trade mission in Muscat, the capital, and withdrawing its trade envoy from Tel Aviv.

Libya had said cutting such ties was the least Arabs could do in response to more than three weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence that have left 117 dead and more than 2,000 wounded - the vast majority Palestinian.

While the summit was unified in holding Israel solely to blame for the violence and for bringing the peace process to an impasse, moderates warned against doing anything that might make future negotiations difficult. Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries with peace treaties and diplomatic relations with Israel, insist negotiations are the only way to bring lasting peace to the region.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had opened the summit with an acknowledgment of Arabs' anger, but warned against "surrendering to our emotions." Mubarak also called on Israel to prove that it, too, wanted peace.

But among ordinary Arabs, the outcome was likely to fuel criticism already being heard: that Arab leaders are divided and unwilling to confront Israel.

The summit was declared a failure in a scathing front-page editorial Sunday in Lebanon's Ad-Diyar by the newspapers editor ad publisher, Charles Ayyoub.

"How can the summit succeed while the majority of Arab rulers have accepted the restrictions of agreements with Israel and the restrictions of subservience to America?" Ayyoub wrote. "The Arab world needs freedom and democracy."

Summit speeches were broadcast live throughout the Arab world. Among those who watched was Fayrouz Mohamed al-Sayed, a university student who helps out at her father's grocery store in Cairo.

"The Libyans were right to leave - a statement or a condemnation is not going to change anything," al-Sayed said Saturday, pointing to a small TV behind the counter replaying a summit speech by Morocco's King Mohammed VI. "I know a war would be hard to win, but if we are going to die then we should die with pride."

But even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appeared to take a moderate tone, saying, "Our choice is the choice of permanent, just and comprehensive peace."

Even so, Israeli government spokesman Nachman Shai called the overall tone of Arafat's speech "very extreme."

The first Arab summit in four years followed the collapse of a cease-fire Mubarak and President Clinton helped broker this week at Egypt's Sharm el-Sheik resort.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said he would call an open-ended "time-out" after the Arab summit to rethink Israel's peace policy. Israel was watching the summit closely for signs of how the Palestinians might proceed once they receive the backing of fellow Arabs.

Also Sunday, Arab foreign ministers signed a pledge to hold annual summits, starting with a meeting presided over by Jordan in March. The Arab League has been unable to hold regular summits since its members split over Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In all 16 heads of state, including the acting head of state of Saudi Arabia, attended, representing: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The remaining six Arab League members - Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - were represented by deputies of their heads of state.