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Mideast Summit

Arab Leaders Back Plan for Mideast Peace

Bush says it's 'a moment of promise' at summit. Heads of state denounce terrorism and pledge funding for Palestinian Authority alone.

June 04, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — Key Arab leaders signed on to President Bush's peace plan for the Middle East on Tuesday, denouncing terrorism and pledging to channel future financial support solely to the Palestinian Authority, led by new Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

U.S. officials described the summit in this sun-baked Red Sea resort -- Bush's first major foray into Mideast diplomacy -- as a milestone in efforts to forge peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

"We meet in Sinai at a moment of promise for the cause of peace in the Middle East," Bush said, flanked by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Palestinians, the sea shimmering behind them. "We see the potential for unity against terror. We see the potential for the birth of a new and Palestinian state. We see the potential for broader peace among the peoples of this region."

In particular, U.S. officials hailed a declaration by the Arab leaders to take steps to end the flow of finances to groups that promote terrorism, and to channel support for the Palestinians through the Palestinian Authority. This will strengthen Abbas' hand in dealing with Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah announced the creation of a central Saudi organization to collect and distribute charity in the Arab world, an effort to prevent any more Saudi money from reaching Al Qaeda and other sponsors of terrorism.

"We will continue to fight the scourge of terrorism against humanity, and reject the culture of extremism and violence in any form or shape, from whatever source or place, regardless of justifications or motives, being fully aware of their danger as a plague that threatens the peace and stability of the whole world," said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, host of the summit.

On the whole, Arab leaders said Bush had earned their attention and respect and they pledged to do their part to make the peace plan, known as the "road map," a success. But they also sounded a note of caution, saying the fate of the plan is now in Israel's hands.

Bush is set to hold a critical, three-way summit today in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to discuss how to implement the peace plan. Israel has expressed support, but with reservations.

Arab leaders said they are looking for signs that Israel is prepared to meet its obligations under the plan, including dismantling settlement outposts built since March 2001.

"We call on Israel to simultaneously fulfill its own responsibilities to rebuild trust and restore normal Palestinian life, and to carry out its other obligations under the road map, thus promoting progress toward the president's vision," Mubarak said.

Israel appeared to be making an effort, setting free 100 Palestinian prisoners on the eve of today's Aqaba conference. One of them was Ahmad Jubarah, 68, the oldest Palestinian in Israeli custody, who spent nearly three decades in prison for planting a bomb in an old refrigerator on an Israeli sidewalk in 1975. The blast killed 13 people.

Jubarah returned to the West Bank city of Ramallah a hero -- he was hoisted on the shoulders of a crowd and taken to meet Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian leaders said the release was a hollow gesture. They have called for the release of thousands being held in Israeli prisons and detention camps, many of them without trial.

The Israeli right was also displeased. They are bracing for the expected dismantling of settlements in coming days -- a move Israeli news reports say Sharon may announce in Aqaba -- and were preparing to take to the streets to protest.

Peace seemed remote in Israel. There were dozens of terror alerts, and young Palestinians hurled Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs at Israeli soldiers in Nablus in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, Israelis killed a Palestinian policeman. Hamas and Islamic Jihad held street demonstrations against the summit.

The Sharm el Sheik summit marks Bush's full-scale entry into Mideast peacemaking, a challenge he avoided for the first 17 months of his presidency. One reason is that his predecessor, Bill Clinton, invested years and personal clout in a similar, but unsuccessful quest, even holding two summits in this same resort on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula.

U.S. national security advisor Condoleezza Rice said Bush had held off on Mideast diplomacy until he was able to change underlying conditions. In particular, heeding Israeli complaints, the Bush administration insisted on finding and dealing with a Palestinian leader other than Arafat, whom they saw as obstructionist.

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