Palestinians walk out as summit snubs Arafat

Suicide bombing on Passover feast wrecks US peace plan as Arab conference in Beirut is thrown into disarray
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First, the Israelis shut Yasser Arafat up, then the Lebanese did the same. Refused permission to leave his pipsqueak fiefdom in Ramallah by Ariel Sharon, the Palestinian leader found that Lebanon would not even allow him to address the Arab summit in Beirut by video link. That prompted a walk-out by the Palestinians.

The Lebanese, it seems, were fearful the Israelis would substitute Mr Sharon for Mr Arafat – and the kings and princes and presidents of the Arab world would have to listen to the man blamed for the 1982 Sabra and Chatila refugee camps massacre rather than the Che Guevara of "Palestine".

But who cared? Over the restored Phoenicia hotel in Beirut, where the Arab leaders gathered yesterday, a Vietnam-era Bell-Augusta helicopter – a gift from the Americans that arrived, some years ago, without instruction manuals – clattered away while a Lebanese gunboat cruised the coastline. How the Israelis must have shaken in their boots.

But President Mubarak of Egypt declined to attend. So did King Abdullah of Jordan. And Mr Arafat, of course, was not there. So who were the choppers and the gunboat protecting? The Arab summit in Beirut was Macbeth's dinner party without Macbeth or Banquo's ghost – or even Lady Macbeth.

The leaders of Yemen and Algeria, the prime ministers of Jordan and Egypt and the viziers and caliphs of another dozen Arab states scarcely made up for the absence of these triple pillars of the Arab world. Indeed, the most visually impressive potentate to arrive in Beirut yesterday was the King (or so we have to call him now) of Bahrain. He arrived at the airport in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet – the fleet in Bahrain being, of course, decidedly American – whose uniform was so heavy with gold ribbons he seemed to have difficulty in raising his arm to shake hands.

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – he of the "peace plan" so warmly embraced by the United States and Tom Friedman of The New York Times – spoke briefly and with some honour. "I tell the Israeli people," he said, "that if their government gives up the policy of force and suppression and accepts genuine peace, we will not hesitate in accepting the Israeli people's right to live in security with the rest of the people in the region."

Coming from the next king of a country that produced most of the 11 September hijackers and created the Taliban, that was quite a statement.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, did his best to support the prince. "All of us want to hear a firm and credible assurance from you, the leaders of the Arab League," he said, "that once Israel concludes a just and comprehensive peace and withdraws from Arab lands, it can look forward to peace and full normal relations with all the Arab world."

But, as all the Arabs – and Israelis – know, there is a lot of grit in the machinery of peace. Did Mr Annan mean all Arab lands – or just those bits from which Israel might choose to withdraw? What is a "just" peace without the "right of return" that the Palestinians demand for their refugees, a policy that – if taken to its logical conclusion – would mean the end of the state of Israel?

And if the Saudis accept "the Israeli people's right to live in security", does this acceptance come before or after Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab land? Prince Abdullah seems to have added the "right of return" to his proposal, along with the end of Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. President Bashar Assad, who did attend the summit, was thankful for the latter.

But is Mr Sharon expected to go along with all this? Is there any chance – ever – of a Sharon government responding to such overtures while it is publicly telling us that it plans even more brutal invasions of Palestinian territory?

If Mr Sharon won't let Mr Arafat go to Beirut, why should he listen to proposals made by those Mr Arafat is not allowed to address? The Palestinian delegates walked out, of course, the moment they realised that the Lebanese had cut their chairman off the air. How Mr Sharon must have chuckled. Arab censors Arab. It was ever thus.

Mr Arafat was reduced – the right word, in the circumstances – to speechifying on the Al-Jazeera television channel, the station that reported the opening of the American bombardment of Kabul last year and got hit by an American cruise missile for its pains.

Mr Arafat, of course, knows all about cruise missiles – it may be why Prince Abdullah warned the Israelis they would be "exceedingly mistaken" if they thought they could use force to impose an unjust peace.

If the original Saudi plan was vague, the prince at least made it clear it was more detailed than UN Security Council Resolution 242. There would have to be "full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands" in return for recognition, including east Jerusalem.

Maybe, the Saudis suggested, the Palestinian refugees could receive compensation rather than a "return" to the land that is now Israel. Needless to say, Prince Abdullah did not visit the sodden refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila – just a few miles from the Phoenicia Hotel – to ask the inmates if they would accept his "peace plan".

As usual in the Arab world, the future of the people lies in the hands of their dictators. And the Israelis. And the Americans.