The Annual Arab Summit Meeting: A Show of No Unity

Written by om, Shlomo

April 7, 2009
Brom, Shlomo
INSS Insight No. 99.

On March 30, 2009, at the end of a fruitless day of discussions in Doha, Qatar, the annual Arab summit, normally attended every year by all members of the Arab League, came to a close. The summit ended earlier than planned because of the participants' inability to close the gaps between their positions. This was the end of a show of no unity.


The summit was characterized by deep differences of opinion between the two blocs that divide the Arab world: the bloc of pragmatic nations led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which works with the United States, and the bloc of nations with close ties to Iran, foremost among them Syria. The first manifestation of the split was the decision of some of the Arab leaders to decline to attend the summit. Only seventeen of the twenty-two leaders of the Arab League nations chose to participate. Prominently absent was Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, who sent a low ranking official to attend the summit in his stead. He was thus expressing his dissatisfaction with the host country, Qatar, which during Israel's recent military campaign in the Gaza Strip chose to side with the nations closely allied with Iran, and even tried to replace Egypt as the mediator between Hamas and Israel. Egypt's displeasure on this issue joined its anger at the unabated attacks by the Qatari al-Jazeera network on the Egyptian regime.

The summit did not succeed in reaching agreement on most of the main issues on the agenda, and therefore the concluding statement lacked even a single operative paragraph. The only clear agreement reached at the summit places Arab nations in outright conflict with Western public opinion. The summit defiantly expressed solidarity with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who has been issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for his involvement in the genocide in Darfur. The concluding statement ignored the divisions between the two streams of the Arab world, preferred not to deal with most of the issues, and satisfied itself with the general call for Arab nations to set aside their differences of opinion through dialogue and to focus on the interest of the Arab nation as a whole.

In the absence of agreements, it was the conduct of Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi that drew the attention of the Arab and international media. He first initiated a confrontation with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and then publicly reconciled with him, while presenting himself as the leader of the Arab world and all of Africa.

As is standard at Arab summits, the conflict with Israel occupied a central place on the agenda. The concluding statement repeated the usual Arab positions. It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as a just and agreed-upon solution (using the language of the Arab peace initiative) for Palestinian refugees without settling them in host countries. It also called for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. The statement did not refer to the Lebanese demand that Shab'a Farms and the village of Rajer be returned to Lebanon, despite the intervention of the Lebanese president who sought to have these included.

There was no decision on the issue that in the months leading up to the summit was presented as central - the fate of the Arab peace initiative. For some time, Syria has been trying to spearhead a move that would set a time limit on the Arab peace initiative. At the special summit held in Doha during the fighting in the Gaza Strip, Syria's representatives contended that the Arab peace initiative had lost its validity because of Israel's conduct. Indirect reference to the Arab peace initiative was made in the concluding statement with reference to a commitment to peace as a strategic goal, to which was added a declaration that Israel must show willingness to move towards peace.

On the Palestinian issue, the summit also condemned the war in the Gaza Strip, reiterated its support for the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and called for reconciliation among Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian unity government. The support for Abbas is significant because Hamas claims that according to the Palestinian constitution Abbas' term as president has expired. Furthermore, contrary to the special summit convened during the war in the Gaza Strip, Hamas was not invited to this summit and as in previous annual summits, it was attended only by state representatives and representatives of the PA.

The summit conference showed the weakness of the Arab world and the deep split within it. It demonstrated that the real players affecting central processes in the Middle East are those who do not participate in Arab League summits, namely Iran, Israel, Turkey, and the non-state players in the Arab world.

From Israel's perspective, one of the major significances of this Arab summit was the weakness of regional dialogue as a means for advancing the political process. From the agreements between Netanyahu and Barak that led to the Labor Party joining the coalition, it may be possible to infer that the Israeli government wants to base the political channel vis-à-vis the Arab states on the Arab peace initiative, while attempting to forge a regional dialogue. An analysis of the current state of the Arab world implies that this approach is an unsound basis for a political process, especially if it is seen as an attempt to bypass the bilateral channels of negotiations.

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The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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