updated 3/26/2004 2:31:39 PM ET 2004-03-26T19:31:39

Despite the threat of U.S. sanctions, hard-line Syria led calls Friday for next week’s annual Arab summit to take a tough stand against Israel in the wake of the killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Damascus’ insistence that Israel be punished for assassinating the Palestinian leader in a rocket attack March 22 in Gaza could become the focus of the two-day summit that starts here Monday, instead of an American-backed blueprint for Middle East political reform and attempts to revive a stalled Arab peace plan.

The Bush administration hopes the reform initiative and the establishment of a new Iraqi government will serve as models for Arab states to follow in changing their own political systems, which tend to be controlled by royal families or hard-line regimes that provide limited scope for free speech and political pluralism.

Saudi plan withers
The Tunis talks had expected to breathe life into the Saudi plan for regional peace that was unveiled at the 2002 Arab summit in Lebanon. But Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, the oil-rich state’s de facto ruler, has said he will not attend the summit, a move that has effectively removed the Saudi plan from the agenda.

“He will feel deeply embarrassed if he comes to defend (his) peace plan while Israeli Prime Minister (Ariel Sharon) continues to play havoc with his (Abdullah’s) brain child,” one diplomat said of the Saudi peace initiative.

Searching for peaceUnder the plan, Arabs collectively offered Israel full peace and normal relations in return for total Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, a Palestinian state and a solution for the refugees.

Saudi Arabia will instead be represented by Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Israel’s fierce foe, Syria, which has been threatened with sanctions by the Bush administration, wants the summit to condemn Israel, particularly over its killing of Yassin, and focus on the Jewish state’s worsening conflict with the Palestinians.

“This is the main issue, it is only natural that it takes priority,” Yousef al-Ahmed, Syria’s envoy to the Arab League, told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Tunis meeting.

But Arab diplomats said key countries, including U.S. allies Egypt and Jordan, oppose Syria’s plans.

Arab foreign ministers met Friday to hammer out the shape of the agenda for the summit, which is also being overshadowed by a lower representation of some key leaders and rumors circulating of a postponement.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika told Al-Arabiya TV in an interview aired Friday that four Arab states, which he did not name, want the summit postponed.

U.S.-backed reform plan
On Thursday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Arab League reform and considering a U.S.-backed plan for greater freedom in Middle Eastern states would top the summit’s agenda, but added that “we should also deal with other issues,” an apparent reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa accused Sharon’s government of torpedoing Mideast peace initiatives by killing Yassin.

“What we need is a partner (for peace) and what is sure is that this Israeli government is not a partner,” Moussa told reporters. “Its behavior does not serve the cause of peace.”

But he said the summit would still discuss regional and Arab League reform and modernization.

“The Arab world and the Arab people have long being waiting for this process (of modernization) to begin,” he said.

The United States has been pushing a “Greater Middle East Initiative,” a reform plan that many Arab countries have said amounts to interference in their domestic affairs.

The plan, which has not yet been officially released, calls on Arab states to institute various reforms, including promoting democracy, human rights and the status of women, upgrading educational systems and encouraging open market investment.

In an opening speech to the conference delivered earlier, Moussa reproached America for vetoing a United Nations Security Council resolution to condemn Israel for Yassin’s assassination and said Arabs are facing “a fierce attack which puts them in a defensive position.”

In vetoing the resolution, the United States called the measure “one-sided” and said it ignored Hamas’ bloody record of terrorism.

The chairman of the Arab summit, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib bin Yahia, said Israel’s recent actions, including the construction of a barrier around the West Bank, “abort every possibility to establish peace in the region.”

Bin Yahia added that Arab leaders, however, must still try to find a way to reactivate the Arab peace initiative.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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