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Tunisia Offers to Host New Arab League Summit to Discuss Latest Mideast Developments - 2004-04-19

Tunisia is offering to try again to host the Arab League summit, after abruptly canceling last month's meeting over disagreements on how to approach reform in the Middle East. Israel's unilateral plan for partial withdrawal from the occupied territories would be a main topic on the agenda.

An Arab League spokesman says leaders from the 22-member group are considering an invitation by Tunisia to meet there for a summit on May 22 and 23.

Last month, the Tunisian government made a surprise decision to call off a planned meeting, after Arab foreign ministers failed to agree on key issues for democratic reform during two days of preliminary sessions.

Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki says, this time, Egypt will host the advance meetings of foreign ministers, during which representatives are supposed to agree on approaches and recommendations to pass on to Arab leaders for consideration at the two-day summit, which will take place in Tunis.

Mr. Zaki says U.S. support of Israel's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, but retain some settlements in the West Bank, will be high on the agenda.

"This is a major policy shift, and it may have serious consequences, and may affect peacemaking in the region," said Mr. Zaki. "It is going to be an important topic for ministers and leaders to talk about and see where we are and where we should go."

He says Secretary-General Amr Moussa has been holding consultations with Arab leaders since the collapse of the last summit, in an attempt to find common approaches to reform.

Critics say the Arab League is ineffective because its members are rarely able to agree on important issues or find meaningful ways to implement the League's recommendations.

But Mr. Zaki says the Israeli killing of Palestinian Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi could provide a point of unity for the League.

"We should expect any sort of action by the Israeli government to undermine our efforts to reach peace," he said. "I think the summit will be successful in dealing with these issues by reaffirming the Arab position vis-a-vis this conflict."

Iraq is also a key issue for the Arab leaders, who want the U.S. occupation to end, and have called for the country to remain united. Mr. Moussa said in the days leading up to the last meeting that foreign ministers were able to agree on the Iraq question without much difficulty.

Arab leaders expect to announce a final date for the summit in the coming days.