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What to expect from the Arab Summit

Arab leaders meeting at the Dead Sea on Wednesday are not expected to adopt momentous resolutions that could spell a departure from previous positions on key issues including Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya and the war on terror.

But the overall message from the 28th Arab Summit will be one of unity, as underlined by the senior level of attendance, expected side meetings between prominent Arab heads of state, and the substance of the Amman Declaration, which will be adopted at the end of the summit. For the host country, presenting a united Arab front on crucial issues will be a major breakthrough.

That does not mean the summit will set aside Arab states’ differences on a number of critical dossiers including Syria, Iran’s regional meddling and Libya’s legitimate representative. But King Abdallah will seek to achieve conformity over basic principles that represent the least common denominator on otherwise divisive issues. Side meetings will see personal mediations to end bilateral rifts and reset relations.

For Jordan it is vital to resurrect the moderate Arab camp, which can initiate a dialogue with world powers on issues such as Syria, Palestine, Libya and the war on terror. Representatives from the US, Russia and the UN will attend the discussions, and Jordan understands the need to reengage the Arab League in regional issues and hopefully reclaim the initiative.

On the divisive issue of Syria, Arab leaders will underline the importance of finding and implementing a political solution that ends more than six years of bloodshed and destruction. Jordan will try to steer through a number of difficult hurdles, such as the fate of the Syrian regime, Arab and foreign involvement in backing various sides in the conflict, and the shape of the political transition that is being discussed in Geneva.

It is no secret that the Syrian conflict has polarized Arab leaderships. Jordan has abided by Arab League resolutions to suspend Syria’s membership, but it also refused to invite representatives of the Syrian opposition to the meeting. This is a significant development that represents Jordan’s attempt to follow a middle and independent path on Syria.

On the Palestinian issue, where Jordan has direct national security interests, King Abdallah is seeking to reposition it, after years of neglect, as a central cause for all Arabs. The timing is important, coinciding with an apparent US departure from a cornerstone of a just and lasting political settlement: The internationally backed two-state solution, which entails establishing a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem.

Iran’s intervention in Arab affairs will occupy a major part of discussions and will certainly be condemned, but Jordan will also seek to send a message to Tehran to opt for diplomacy and normalize relations with the Arab world.

Osama Al-Sharif

While Arab leaders will reinstate their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, they will also discuss behind closed doors the possible implications of, and responses to, a US proposal to convene a regional peace conference this summer.

All eyes will be on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who according to Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit may be considering presenting new ideas at the meeting. Palestinian sources have denied this.

In light of the vagueness of the US proposal, Arab leaders are not expected to change their position, but will seek answers as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, King Abdallah and Abbas each head on separate state visits to Washington in April.

Recommitting to the Arab Peace Initiative represents a last-ditch attempt by Arab countries to seek a comprehensive peace deal with Israel in return for the latter’s acceptance of the two-state solution in accordance with UN resolutions and the Oslo Accords.

The challenge will be to maintain this united stand before mounting US pressure to adopt an alternative route. No doubt King Abdallah, as head of the Arab Summit, will stress during his meeting with President Donald Trump the dangers of abandoning the two-state solution.

On Yemen, Arab leaders will back legitimacy, relevant UN resolutions and the initiative sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Iran’s intervention in Arab affairs will occupy a major part of discussions and will certainly be condemned, but Jordan will also seek to send a message to Tehran to opt for diplomacy and normalize relations with the Arab world.

Libya and the future of the Government of National Accord (GNA) will present a challenge, as the fate of the Sukhairat agreement remains unclear. The summit, while backing the GNA, is unlikely to end Libya’s multi-government, multi-Parliament reality.

The summit’s resolutions and the Amman Declaration will not be short of cliches. What will be put to the test is the ability to summon the political will to address immediate challenges that are not restricted to political issues but include social, economic and cultural ones.

At the heart of all this is Arab leaders’ willingness to go ahead with the restructuring of the Arab League so it can function as a viable pan-Arab vehicle in the 21st century. Despite previous efforts, the 22-member organization has failed to reinvent itself in a way that can affect the present and future of the Arab world. More importantly perhaps, it has ceased to inspire Arabs, whose lack of trust in it has reached unprecedented levels.

• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.