updated 3/21/2005 5:14:21 PM ET 2005-03-21T22:14:21

This week’s gathering of Arab leaders won’t open the doors to establishing ties with Israel because of opposition from Syria and other hard-line countries. Still, some Arab nations are moving forward with a more welcoming stance on peace.

Some had predicted the summit, which opens Tuesday, would be “historic” in dealing with rapid changes in the Middle East: huge demonstrations in Lebanon and a Syrian military pullback there, new optimism in the peace process and increasing pressure for democratic change.

In the end, it won’t be so daring. Arab League leaders are largely avoiding the issues of Lebanon and democratic reform, and they rejected Jordan’s proposal for a new peace strategy that would offer Israel normal relations and drop the traditional demand that it first return Arab lands. Instead, they’re likely to pay lip service to Syria’s concerns about U.S. pressure and consider reform of the Arab League itself.

The gathering will be attended by only 13 of the 22 leaders. The others are staying away for health reasons or because of personal disputes.

For example, Crown Prince Abdullah, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, is not participating — apparently because of the presence of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, whom Saudi officials accuse of involvement in a plot to kill Abdullah.

Ahead of the two-day summit, 15,000 policemen swarmed Algiers, lining up along the highway to the summit site and patrolling rooftops, parks and intersections.

Jordan calls for adapting to change
During preparatory talks, Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani al-Mulqi complained about the failure of Arab nations to adapt with changing times, delegates said. Al-Mulqi tried in vain to persuade fellow ministers to accept his country’s peace proposal, arguing that doing so amounted not to making concessions to Israel but to “reality,” the delegates said. Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen led the fight to reject the Jordanian proposal.

Instead, the summit will endorse a text reaffirming a Saudi peace initiative approved in 2002. That initiative said Arab states were prepared to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for its full withdrawal from occupied Arab territory, the creation of a Palestinian state and settlement of the Palestinian refugee issue.

The Algiers summit “will not be the summit of normalization,” said Abdelaziz Belkhadem, foreign minister of Algeria, the gathering’s host.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is staying away from the summit, apparently angered by the dismissal of his proposal. His government had argued a new stance would encourage Israel to make concessions in the peace process.

But the rejection doesn’t mean Jordan’s initiative is dead. It could encourage several nations that are looking to develop relations with Israel, delegates said. In particular, Morocco, Oman and Qatar, which already have trade relations with Israel, are looking to expand ties.

‘Arab parliament’
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said the leaders were expected to express support for Syria “in the face of American pressures.” Syria’s troop withdrawal from Lebanon was not on the summit agenda. Arab nations have pressed Damascus to leave its neighbor.

And despite pressure from Washington for democratic reform, the summit will largely avoid the issue. Instead, the leaders are focusing on reforming the Arab League by endorsing a plan to set up an “Arab parliament” — an unelected consultative body for the league.

In an article in the Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, columnist Abdel-Rahman al-Rashid criticized the league for failing to deal with major issues facing the Middle East.

“What is the benefit of a summit or even the League itself when it hides, waiting for each crisis to end by itself,” he wrote. “It is ridiculous that the summit has promised Arabs a big achievement, an Arab parliament. Is this what Arabs want? Another symbolic chatting council?”

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