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Arab Summit to Endorse Palestinian Positions with Eye on US

  • Associated Press

A section of twenty one kings, presidents and top officials from the Arab League summit pose for a group photo, at a gathering near the Dead Sea in Jordan, March 29, 2017.

Arab leaders held their annual summit on Wednesday, poised to endorse key Palestinian positions in the conflict with Israel — a signal to President Donald Trump that a deal on Palestinian statehood must precede any Israeli-Arab normalization.

The Palestinian quest for independence also served as a showcase for Arab unity in a fractured region, where leaders find themselves on opposite sides of long-running conflicts, particularly Syria's six-year-old civil war.

The 21 kings, presidents and top officials gathered on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, with a clear view of the Israeli-occupied West Bank on the opposite shore.

Despite demands for urgent political reform to tackle the region's challenges, including high unemployment and widespread gender inequality, the optics of the summit signaled business as usual. The leaders around the conference table were all men, most of them elderly.

Syrian President Bashar Assad was absent — he hasn't been invited since Syria's suspension from the 22-member Arab League following his crackdown on a 2011 uprising that quickly turned into a brutal civil war.

The gathering came ahead of White House meetings in coming weeks between Trump and three Arab leaders — Jordan's King Abdullah II, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Trump hasn't yet formulated a policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but has suggested the internationally backed idea of a two-state solution isn't the only option on the table. His international envoy, Jason Greenblatt, held meetings with Abbas and the foreign ministers of Qatar and Egypt on the sidelines of the summit.

The Palestinians want to set up a state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

On Wednesday, the leaders were expected to reaffirm a 2002 Arab peace plan that offers Israel normalization with dozens of Arab and Muslim countries if it cedes the war-won lands for the creation of a Palestinian state.

This would undercut Israel's proposal of a regional peace in which normalization with some Arab countries would precede a deal with the Palestinians.

Abbas objects to reopening the Arab plan to negotiations, fearing it would further weaken the Palestinian position vis-a-vis Israel. He said Wednesday that the summit resolutions will "send a clear message to the world" of a united Arab stance.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not formally abandoned his stated support for the two-state solution, but has stopped mentioning it in his speeches since Trump was elected. Instead, he has made vague statements about seeking a region-wide agreement.

Netanyahu frequently boasts of strong behind-the-scenes alliances with unidentified Arab countries.

In a speech this week to AIPAC, the pro-Israel American lobby group, Netanyahu once again alluded to a region-wide approach, saying that "common dangers faced by Israel and many of our Arab neighbors now offer a rare opportunity to build bridges toward a better future."

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the summit's focus on the Palestinians is a ploy to divert from the real issues. "We are the ultimate fig leaf for all Arab abuses and failures," he wrote in a Twitter post.

The Arab summit was to adopt a series of resolutions, several dealing with the Palestinian issue. The statements, subject to last-minute change, were previously endorsed by Arab foreign ministers.

The draft resolutions condemn Israeli policies, including settlement construction, that are "aimed at eliminating the two-state solution and replacing it with apartheid."

They also warned against moving diplomatic missions to contested Jerusalem, whose eastern sector is sought by the Palestinians as a capital. Trump has said he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but relocation no longer appears imminent.

Jordan's king told the summit's opening session that there can be no peace or stability in the region without setting up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Jordan has a large Palestinian population and also serves as custodian of a major Muslim-run shrine in Jerusalem that is also Judaism's holiest site.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, has been a scene of frequent Israeli-Palestinian tensions, including clashes.

Palestinians fear Israel wants to divide it, a charge Israel denies. Jordan's monarch said "we will continue to fight any attempts to change the status quo" at the site.

The Egyptian president and Saudi Arabia's King Salman slipped out of the summit session for face-to-face talks, signaling an attempt at possible reconciliation.

A photo handout by the Egyptian delegation showed the two leaders sitting next to each other in white cushion chairs.

Relations between the two countries have been tense in recent months. Saudi Arabia is a leading supporter of the Syrian opposition, while Egypt, fearful of Islamic militants among the rebels' ranks, has pushed for a political solution that might keep Assad in power.

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