If ever there were a moment for an Arab Summit to bring together the major Arab players to formulate a coherent, practical strategy, this would seem to be it. The Obama administration and the Netanyahu government in Israel continue to lock horns, creating an opening for Arab diplomacy — either to reaffirm or to repudiate the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative. The grinding Palestinian division between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah remains unresolved, with Egyptian mediation no closer than ever to success. The question of Iran’s nuclear program poses challenges and opportunities which could offer an opening to creative diplomacy. Unfortunately, this Arab Summit just happens to be scheduled for Libya… which more or less guarantees a higher degree of inter-Arab division, and makes it cruelly unlikely that any productive moves will be taken.
Libya’s long-standing dictator Moammar Qaddafi has been a central player in disrupting an impressive number of previous Arab summits. Last year, after his public feud with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah dominated the Arab Summit in Doha (he declared himself "the dean of the Arab rulers, the king of kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims"), I wondered if we had seen the end of Arab summits. Well, technically no, since they still roll around like clockwork. But functionally, perhaps so.
The attendance at the upcoming summit is notably poor. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem to find it a pressing item of business, after being so rudely interrupted by Qaddafi in Doha. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is very, very not sick and doing wonderfully (according to the Egyptian state media; the rumor mill still thinks he’s dead), but isn’t up to traveling to Libya, so the leader of the supposedly pivotal Arab state will miss his third consecutive Arab summit meeting. Several Gulf leaders, including Sultan Qabus of Oman and Sheikh Khalifa of the UAE have sent their regrets. Iraq will stay away after Qaddafi invited some Iraqi resistance figures. So will Lebanon. Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to boycott if Hamas is invited; at last report, he will come but plans to arrive fashionably late. Algeria’s President Bouteflika apparently overcame illness to attend, but Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has threatened to stay home if he does.
Many of these absences may have happened anyway — but Qaddafi’s unique legacy only exacerbates the problems and adds an extra layer of absurdist political theater. With so many leaders missing, few Arabs expect much from the Summit on any of the urgently pressing issues they face. I wouldn’t expect moves towards serious Palestinian reconciliation, the articulation of a new strategy towards Iran, or the adoption of a significant new approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace. It’s something of a tragedy that the Libyan distraction came at this particular historical juncture. It is in many ways more tragic that nobody really expected anything out of the Summit anyway. Perhaps we should just treat this like the opening and closing of the Winter Olympics: don’t expect much, just sit back and wait for Qaddafi to provide some amusing YouTube moments.
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