updated 3/29/2008 9:08:20 AM ET 2008-03-29T13:08:20

Syrian President Bashar Assad questioned how long Arab nations can keep offering Israel a land-for-peace proposal as a deeply divided Arab League summit got under way on Saturday.

Only 11 heads of state from the Arab League's 22 members were present at the opening as leaders of the United States' top Arab allies boycotted the meeting to protest Syria's hard-line stances in nearly every crisis in the Mideast.

The summit has only solidified the region's rift between Syria and pro-U.S. countries. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was headed to the Mideast on Saturday for talks with Arab and Israeli leaders.

Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan sent only low-level officials to the two-day gathering in a snub to the Syrian hosts. Lebanon boycotted the summit completely, sending no delegation.

Militant links
The countries blame Syria for blocking the election of a new president in Lebanon for months, prolonging its unending political crisis. Washington and its Arab allies are also opposed to Syria's strong alliances with Iran and the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah militant groups.

In his opening speech to the summit, Assad said peace was the only way for Israel to gain security in the region, and "peace will not come except through withdrawal from occupied Arab land and giving back (Arab) rights."

He warned that Arab countries may have to seek alternatives to a 2002 Arab peace plan if Israel continues to refuse to accept it. The proposal offers Israel full peace with Arab nations if it withdraws from Arab lands and allows the creation of a Palestinian state.

"The question is: Do we leave the peace process and initiatives hostage to the whims of successive Israeli governments, or do we search for choices and substitutes that can achieve a just and comprehensive peace?" Assad said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa proposed that Arab foreign ministers meet in mid-2008 to evaluate the Israeli-Arab peace process.

'Painful positions'
"We must know in which direction we are moving," Moussa said. "If there is progress, we will welcome it. If there is not, then Arabs may have to take painful positions."

"No one will blame us for a decisive position we will take," he said. "What have we achieved? So far, nothing ... Things are not reassuring."

Syria has been pushing Arab countries to set a time limit for Israel to accept the Arab peace initiative, which was first formulated by Saudi Arabia then approved by all Arab countries in 2002. But so far the summit has resisted doing so.

Damascus has billed the summit as an opportunity for Arab nations to take a strong united stance on the Israel-Palestinian issue. Instead, the region's powerhouses have shunned the Syrian-hosted gathering.

Heads of state from Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and Somalia are not attending the Damascus gathering.

Diplomatic cost
By staying away, the countries aimed to show Damascus the diplomatic cost of its hard line on Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is likely instead to strengthen Damascus' alliance with Iran and the Hamas and Hezbollah militant groups.

"There are now two axes — Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side and the rest are on the another," said Wahid Abdel-Meguid, of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

In neighboring Lebanon, pro- and anti-Syrian camps have been locked in a long struggle for power. The Lebanese opposition, led by Syria's ally Hezbollah, has been boycotting parliament to prevent supporters of the Western-backed government from electing a president. The post has been empty since November, when pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud's term ended.

In his speech, Assad denied that Syria was interfering in Lebanon. "The key to a solution is in the hands of the Lebanese. They have their country, constitution and institutions," he said. "Any other (outside) role is to give assistance, not be a substitute."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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