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Arab Summit in Kuwait Ends in Discord

Arab leaders tried to patch over their differences as a two-day summit in Kuwait drew to a close, but the Gaza conflict appears to have exacerbated the tensions.

Arab leaders began their Kuwait summit, Monday, amid discord, and ended it, a day later, amid more discord. Attempts to find a common position on the conflict in Gaza and towards Israel seemingly failed, leaving rival Arab camps as divided as ever.

Arab leaders did, however, agree to a plan to rebuild the war-torn Gaza Strip, promising a total of $2 billion to reconstruct what was damaged or demolished in the 21-day conflict between Israel and Hamas militants.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Houshiyar Zubeiri told Kuwaiti TV that the summit's final declaration avoided a common position on Gaza because Arab leaders had "run out of time" to reconcile their differences, and because "some [leaders] remain entrenched in their positions."

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa sounded unusually downbeat and discouraged in a press conference after the summit.

He said the Arab state of affairs remains troubled and tense. He said, "we tried, Monday, to start rebuilding after the important speech by [Saudi] King Abdallah [calling for an end to discord]." But, he concludes, "things are still not back to normal, in my view, and we must make intensive efforts in order to repair the damage."

Moussa did, however, make a special point to emphasize that the 2002 Arab peace initiative towards Israel, remains on the table, despite events in Gaza, and despite calls from Syria and Iran to withdraw it.

The 2002 Arab peace initiative, he says, did not figure in the summit's closing statement, but he said it remains valid, and he said Arab leaders have no quarrels over the initiative, which he calls a common point of view. But, he adds, the initiative can't remain on the table much longer, if after seven years Israel still hasn't accepted it.

Paul Salem, who heads the Beirut-based Carnegie Center for Peace in the Middle East, explained that the Arabs had papered over their profound differences which had arisen during the Gaza conflict. "Definitely, the two camps remain; papering over some of the differences was expected and is sort of the normal course of affairs in Arab affairs. The idea of conciliation and sort of moving forward and not bringing out differences too much into the open, but nobody's position has changed, but it was necessary to save face for the Arab leaders, in general, for the regimes in general, to show that they could agree, at least after the Gaza war was over," he said.

Salem was, however, more optimistic about the long term prospects for peace. "The Gaza events certainly divided people, but there is more areas of agreement as to how to move forward in terms of bringing Hamas and Fatah together, in terms of reconstructing the Gaza Strip, in terms of trying to revive negotiations with Israel, and encouraging the U.S. administration to do so," he said.

As the new Obama administration takes office, it will both have to work with the camp of traditional U.S. allies, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as to make some sort of overture to the opposing camp of foes and adversaries, which includes Iran and Syria.