'The Summit of Jerusalem': Palestine tops list of Arab concerns again

Haitham Nouri , Monday 16 Apr 2018

With the 29th Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia this week, the Palestinian issue has returned to the top of the agenda among Arab nations

Arab summit
Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the 29th Arab Summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia April 15, 2018. (Source REUTERS photo)

At the 29th Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia this week, Arab leaders returned the Palestinian issue to the top of the agenda after several years of prioritising other issues, with a resolution on the topic taking up a quarter of the summit's final communiqué.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud announced on Sunday that the pan-Arab meeting would be the "Summit of Jerusalem", emphasising the stature of the Palestinian cause in the Arab mind.

“I would like to announce calling the 29th Arab Summit the Summit of Jerusalem so that everyone will know that Palestine and its people are in the conscience of all Arabs and Muslims,” the king said, interrupting the speech of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

For years the Palestinian cause was confined to one unchanging resolution placed at the end of the summit's communiqué. Among the likely reasons for this are the preoccupation of a number of Arab countries with internal issues and regional conflicts since the Arab Spring, as well as the long years with no comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue in the offing.

This year's summit is particularly important, due to a number of pressing issues affecting the region: the December decision of US President Donald Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem; Houthi aggression against Saudi national security; and recent US-led airstrikes against the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.

But Palestine was certainly placed front and centre at the summit in Dhahran, starting with a speech from Jordanian King Abdullah II, who was the head of the previous summit. "East Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine," he said.

Salman, the head of the current summit, gave a speech of his own, stating, "The Palestinian issue will remain our main priority until the Palestinian people gain their historical rights, and the most important of said rights is the establishment of their own independent state with Jerusalem as its capital."

The king condemned Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He also repeated Abbas's critical stance on the current US administration, saying it is no longer an impartial broker in the peace process.

In his speech, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, said that Washington has the responsibility of sponsoring a peace deal, thus signalling his country's disapproval of Trump's decision on Jerusalem.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, meanwhile, stated the need for unity among Palestinian factions, pointing to Cairo's role in sponsoring Palestinian reconciliation talks ever since the Fatah-Hamas schism, which resulted in Hamas's sole rule of the Gaza strip in 2007.

The king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, delivered a short speech, saying, "We remain determined to establish a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital." He also apologised for not being able to host the 30th Arab League Summit, which has been moved to Tunisia.

The summit concluded with a 29-item statement, the first seven items focused on the Palestinian issue, beginning with the emphasis on the centrality of the Palestinian cause and the importance of Jerusalem to Arab identity.

The statement also emphasised that the Arabs would benefit strategically from a peaceful resolution of the issue.

Moreover, it criticised Trump's decision regarding Jerusalem and welcomed the UN's condemnation of the decision, thanking those states that voted in favour of Palestine and its Arab allies.

The statement went on to condemn Israel's attempts to change the status of Jerusalem and called for the implementation of the resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO on Palestine in general and on Jerusalem in particular.

As for Iran, the statement condemned its support for Houthi militias in Yemen, who have launched 106 ballistic missiles at Saudi cities. The statement requested that the international community prevent Iran from aiding terrorist groups and providing ballistic missiles to the Houthis.

Although Iran was not mentioned again in the statement, the Yemeni issue was touched upon again, with the statement mentioning the importance of "Yemeni stability, unity and the prevention of foreign intervention in the Yemeni crisis".

The communiqué also called for the prevention of foreign intervention in Arab internal issues, as well as encouraging the establishment of normalised relations with those states neighbouring Arab countries.

However, the various Arab states have different priorities with regard to the non-Arab states in the region. For instance, in his speech president El-Sisi condemned the "occupation of two Arab states conducted by a regional state", implying the Turkish military operations in Iraq and Syria.

Furthermore, Egypt is more focused on what is happening in Ethiopia than Iran's role in the region. Sudan is also more preoccupied with its conflict with Eritrea, which has caused it to deploy troops on their shared border.

Somalia, meanwhile, is mainly interested in its unstable relationship with Ethiopia, and seeks to establish better relations with, it as well as with Kenya.

Iraq maintains relations with Iran, and the Maghreb states did not mention Iran in their speeches, except when they reaffirmed their solidarity with the Gulf states.

The rest of the statement demonstrated the differences the Gulf states and the rest of the Arab states have on the issue of Syria.

President El-Sisi responded to new allegations of chemical-weapons use by the Syrian government, saying, "It is necessary that there be an independent international investigation on the use of chemical weapons."

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia made no reference to the need for investigations, simply condemning Damascus for using nerve agents on civilians living in Ghouta.

However, on a range of other issues – including the situations in Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Comoros – the Arab leaders showed no divergence of opinion.

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