DOHA, March 29 (Reuters) - Leaders of the 22-member Arab League gather in the Gulf Arab state of Qatar for a two-day summit meeting starting on Monday.
The summits rarely take decisions of import and have often showcased Arab division rather than unity, yet they invariably receive wide media attention in the Arab world.
Media from across the region have descended on the tiny state of Qatar, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas. There are critical questions in play behind the scenes.
What are the main issues the summit will discuss this year?
Three issues are expected to dominate the agenda: The arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in Darfur, Palestinian unity and peace talks with Israel, and reconciliation among Arab leaders after a turbulent period of conflicts and rivalry linked to the rising power of Iran.
What do the Arabs want to do over Bashir?
The indictment of the Sudanese leader has placed the Arabs in a quandary. The last thing they want to see is another leader called to account for abuses, after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003 and executed in 2006. But they cannot be seen to flout international law, especially since Arab states appealed to international justice over Israel’s offensive in Gaza earlier this year. So summit resolutions will be careful to talk of the need for justice in Darfur itself, as well as reiterate the Arab call for the arrest issue to be delayed for a year.
Will Bashir be there?
Qatar has made a point of inviting Bashir but it is not clear if he will attend, nor whether Qatar and the other Arab countries would actually welcome his presence. The U.S. military has a strong presence in the region and could try to intercept him. The Arabs would look collectively like outlaws. Bashir would have a perfect platform to show his defiance.
What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The summit will reiterate support for an Arab peace initiative for a land-for-peace deal with Israel that sees the establishment of a Palestinian state. Some language may hint that the peace offer will not last forever, in light of the surge in recent elections of the Israeli right which is less likely to accept compromises with the Palestinians. With a new U.S. administration in place, the Arabs want to look responsible and put the onus on Israelis to act on peace — or risk looking like the bad guys if they do not.
How does Palestinian unity fit into this?
Islamist group Hamas runs the Gaza Strip and the Fatah group of President Mahmoud Abbas controls the West Bank. The United States and its allies back Abbas as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians in both territories and accuse Iran of pushing Hamas to continue armed resistance to Israel and drive hard terms for uniting the Palestinian territories once more under one government, after they split amid street fighting in 2007.
Arab reconciliation will help bring this about then?
It could. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa has said there will be a special session on Monday for "Arab disputes". Syria and Qatar, along with non-Arab power Iran, backed Hamas during the Israeli offensive in Gaza, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia blamed Hamas for provoking Israel. The rift exploded spectacularly when the two camps tried to hold rival Arab summits in January. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad flew to Riyadh this month to help mend fences before the Arab summit in Doha.
So is everything fine now?
Not really. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak is apparently not coming to Doha because of bad feelings towards Qatar in particular, though the Saudi king will attend because Saudi Arabia — with its closed political system reliant upon one ruling family and anti-Shi’ism of its guiding religious ideology — is more worried than most about Iran’s power and prestige in the Arab world. Mubarak could still turn up after last minute pleading: it would fit with the theatrical pattern of Arab summits. Both Mubarak and King Abdullah boycotted last year’s gathering in Damascus.
Are Arab summits always this fraught with tension?
Yes, it’s not unusual. Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 and the American plan to invade Iraq and bring down Saddam Hussein in 2003 created huge rifts in the Arab world. Plates have been smashed in anger and, as U.S. troops were poised to enter Iraq in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and the Saudi king, then crown prince, had a verbal spat about who was responsible for making the Arab world an arena for American hegemony. Riyadh even declined to host the summit in 2006. (Writing by Andrew Hammond, editing by Myra MacDonald)