Arab leaders who gather for yearly summits have enough trouble dealing with the Middle East’s running disputes. But this week’s Arab League meeting in Khartoum takes place amid a build-up of crises that have left the region even more turbulent than usual, and the search for a meaningful consensus among leaders more elusive.
“Normally you have one or two problems in the region that are complicating things – Palestine and another issue,” says a senior Arab official. “We’re now at a point where we have five big issues and we don’t know how governments can juggle them. The region has never experienced so many problems at the same time.”
Excluding the conflict in Darfur – which will have to be addressed at a summit hosted by Sudan – governments are grappling with the victory of the Islamist Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories and the continued deadlock in the peace process with Israel; the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq; the deterioration in relations between Lebanon and Syria; the Iran nuclear crisis; and the continued threat of terrorism.
Many of the problems feed into each other. Trouble in Iran and Syria complicates matters in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon – countries where Tehran and Damascus can count on the support of radical groups.
The deepening Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq, meanwhile, is at risk of spreading to other parts of the region, including Lebanon, where tensions between the pro-Syrian Shia leaders and anti-Syrian Sunni have intensified.
Iraq has also become a breeding ground for a new generation of Arab jihadis, who governments fear will take their fight back to their home countries.
No one is under the illusion that an Arab summit can provide solutions to the region’s woes – rarely do the moderate and hardline states craft a consensus that survives beyond the day’s declarations. Some problems are too sensitive to even discuss.
For example, Arab governments are alarmed by Iran’s suspected ambitions to develop nuclear weapons, yet they hesitate to openly criticise Tehran when Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal escapes western scrutiny.
Starting tomorrow, the day of the Israeli elections, the Khartoum meeting’s most immediate concern is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In a strange coincidence, Arab League leaders met at Khartoum in the wake of the Arab defeat in the 1967 war. Then they issued the famous three “Nos” – no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel. This time, Arab leaders are looking for ways to convince Hamas to say yes to peace, negotiations, and recognition. Western governments, which have warned Hamas of a cut in international aid, want the summit to raise pressure on the Islamist group. Arab diplomats, however, say the meeting will call for continued political and financial support to the Palestinian Authority, of which Hamas is a big part.
At the same time, the summit will reiterate the commitment of Arab League members to the Beirut initiative, adopted in 2002 and calling for peace with Israel if it withdraws from land occupied in 1967.
Arab governments are hoping Hamas will sign up to the initiative, as a face-saving way of accepting a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and easing international pressure. Yet Hamas officials do not appear ready to embrace the peace plan.
The US and Britain are also looking for the summit to promote greater Arab engagement with Iraq and counter Iranian influence. The Arab League is planning a second national reconciliation conference, following up last year’s Cairo meeting between Iraqi factions. But, though desperate to contain a sectarian conflict that could drag in all the neighbours, Arab officials say it is not clear what more the region could do for Iraq.
With more problems flaring up than the Middle East can handle, Arab governments have been urging Syria and Lebanon to avoid confrontation, against mounting tension since last year’s assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. A UN investigation is still looking into Syria’s alleged role in the killing but Damascus denies involvement.
The crisis has strained relations between Lebanese political factions, some of whom are still allied with Syria. Over the past month, political leaders have held a conference to defuse tension. But so far the talks have failed to resolve the key demand of anti-Syrian politicians – the removal of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud from office.
Now the anti-Syrian majority in parliament is looking to Egypt and Saudi Arabia for help. Little, however, is expected to emerge from the summit, where Mr Lahoud represents Lebanon.