The Arab leaders should embrace this plan for peace

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Past Arab League summits have tended to be greeted with bored yawns in the West, where they are known, with some justification, for their ritualistic condemnation of Israel and little else. The summit that opens in Beirut tomorrow, however, could be different. The meeting commands attention as the first assembly of Arab leaders since the terrorist atrocities of 11 September and the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Primarily, though, the summit will be worth following as the first real test of what has become known as the Saudi peace plan for the Middle East. In its first, rather vague, outline, the plan advanced by Crown Prince Abdullah proposed a return to the basic principle of "land for peace", offering formal recognition of Israel by all Arab states in return for Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territory.

The plan was welcome not only for its endorsement of a principle that must lie at the heart of any settlement, but also for its provenance. It came from within the Arab world, and specifically from Saudi Arabia, a country known more for dispensing petro-dollars to keep Yasser Arafat afloat than for tackling the diplomatic minutiae of Middle East peace.

Since its first appearance, the plan has become more clearly defined – for better, and worse. The diplomatic recognition that seemed to be on offer to Israel at the outset has been diluted to an offer to pronounce the Arab-Israel conflict over and acceptance that Arabs and Israelis can live alongside each other, pending negotiation of a peace treaty.

The vexed issue of the Palestinians' "right of return" – absent from the early version – is now spelled out as a demand for all those Palestinians and their descendants who wish to return to be able to do so. This demand, along with disagreement about the status of Jerusalem, scuppered US mediation efforts 18 months ago, and it is unclear whether the Saudi proposal has more latitude now than was in the Palestinian position then.

Mr Arafat may not be in Beirut to present the Palestinian case. Leave for him to travel depends on his willingness, or ability, to arrest Palestinians wanted by Israel – a condition that underlines how little real power his Palestinian Authority wields. At this point, however, Mr Arafat's freedom to travel is less important than whether Arab leaders collectively back the Saudi plan. Which is why we should take notice of what happens in Beirut this week.