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Arab League Ministers Unable to Agree on Political Reforms - 2004-03-27

Foreign ministers of Arab League nations have been unable to agree on political reforms in the Middle East. Arab officials say formulating a reform plan for the Middle East is closely linked to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Speaking to reporters after two days of preliminary sessions with Arab foreign ministers, the host of the Arab summit, Tunisian Foreign Minister Habib bin Yahia, said the ministers are continuing discussions about how to implement comprehensive reform in Arab world.

He says the proposal should include social, political and economic reforms.

The ministers met in Tunis to lay the groundwork for the Arab League summit, which opens Monday. But officials have hinted at disagreements during the often heated closed-door sessions, with some countries, including Syria, advocating a harsh position against Israel following the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Other countries, including Egypt and Jordan, are calling for a more moderate approach that would focus on setting the peace process back on track.

A spokesman for the Arab League, Hesham Youssef, said the group sees adopting a position toward Israel as a key factor in any reform plan.

"First of all we have to say that our position is against Israeli practices and this has to be stated," he said. "Then we have to state our position in relation to what should be done, either by us and in respect to the international community."

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Israel is not a partner in peace. He said the U.S.-led proposal for reform in the region has been widely rejected by Arab leaders because it fails to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He says the Arab governments have not abandoned the idea of formulating their own reform initiative, and added he hopes a clear text will be agreed to by the end of the summit Tuesday.

Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah announced Friday he will skip the summit, and instead, send his foreign minister to the summit in his place.

Saudi Arabia was the author of the most recent peace initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002, which called for peace and the resumption of normal relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Saudi Arabia was also a main backer of the Egyptian-led Middle East reform proposal that ministers began debating last month.

Mr. Moussa said the foreign ministers did come to an agreement on Iraq without a lot of discussion, but he did not give details. Arab countries have widely supported the idea that Iraq should remain unified, and have called for an immediate end to U.S. occupation.