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Date posted: May 25, 2004
By Marwan Bishara

The gathering of Arab leaders in Tunis over the weekend culminated in declarations of solidarity and peace that spoke generally of reform but were short on specifics and programs. Arab leaders pledged to act collectively to ameliorate their peoples' lives but produced no mechanism for implementing such intentions.

The poorly attended summit meeting, which had already been delayed for two months, confirmed the general perception that Arab leaders are preoccupied only with the survival of their own regimes and have neither the will nor the capacity to address their region's deterioration.

The summiteers produced three concluding documents. The "Pledge of Accord and Solidarity," directed at Arab public opinion, commits the leaders to a "better future for the Arab countries and their peoples and to avoid the ordeals of sedition, division and infighting." In reality, however, the summit meeting was marred by a no-show by eight leaders and the departure of four before the curtain came down, as well as an exhibitionist walkout by the Libyan leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi.

The Arab leaders also produced a 13-point statement on reform, directed at the United States but lacking a process by which leaders might be held accountable. Obsessed with power, Arab leaders speak of regional reforms to please Washington but fail to act on them domestically.

The leaders pledged "broader participation in public affairs," instead of advocating free and fair elections, and promised "responsible freedom of expression" while reserving for themselves the role of judging what is responsible.

The summit statements mentioned strengthening the role of Arab women but made this conditional on "our faith, values and traditions," which leaves women at the mercy of conservative interpreters of these cultural and religious categories.

The leaders' position on the deteriorating Iraqi situation was passive and their condemnation of Israel's war crimes in the reoccupied Palestinian territories had no teeth. Instead they reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful negotiations with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel - a position which, in the eyes of the Israeli and Arab public, reflects impotence rather than eagerness for reconciliation.

Such is the current state of paralysis in the Arab League, an organization devoted to economic cooperation and political coordination that finds itself crippled by persistent divisions.

The latest and most divisive issue is how to deal with U.S. policy. For most Arab leaders, overwhelmed by America's direct interference in their region since the Sept. 11 attacks, bilateral relations with Washington have become far more pressing than those with other Arab countries.

For example, disagreement between those who demanded condemnation of the American occupation of Iraq and others who wanted to praise Washington for handing back sovereignty on June 30 has undermined any possibility for a common strategy. Likewise, Arab leaders disagree on the Bush administration's policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While some emphasize Bush's vision of a Palestinian state, others underline his recognition of Israeli settlements and his rejection of Palestinian refugees' right of return.

The same goes for national security. Increasingly, Arab regimes are hosting U.S. military bases and strengthening military ties and intelligence coordination with America at the expense of domestic reform or regional coordination on regional Arab security.

The coziness between America and these regimes has confirmed popular perceptions among Arabs that neither their leaders nor the United States are committed to democratic reform. Instead, an implicit barter is taking place whereby certain Arab leaders commit to stronger cooperation with America's war on terrorism and its policy in Iraq and Palestine in exchange for an easing of pressure from Washington regarding reform and democracy.

Just as the previous Arab summit meeting's 50-point communiqu went unimplemented, so the Tunis gathering will go down in history as a summit of words and no deeds.

Marwan Bishara is a visiting lecturer at the American University of Paris and the author of "Palestine/Israel: Peace or Apartheid."

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Source: International Herald Tribune
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