CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Wednesday he stayed away from a crucial Arab summit in solidarity with Yasser Arafat, saying the Palestinian leader had been humiliated by an Israeli stance that kept him from attending the meeting in Lebanon.
The Arab League summit opened Wednesday without Mubarak, Arafat or Jordanian King Abdullah II. The absence of three key players in the Mideast peace process may cause a Saudi peace initiative presented to lose momentum.
In his first comment since bowing out from the gathering late Tuesday, the Egyptian leader told reporters in Cairo he supported the Saudi initiative and had been "keen" on attending the summit.
But he decided not to participate "when I found the issue becoming a matter of blackmail of the Palestinian people and the head of the Palestinian Authority, insult and humiliation." Mubarak sent his Prime Minister Atef Obeid instead.
Arafat decided to stay away after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the United States must guarantee Israel had the right to block Arafat's return should Palestinians launch terror attacks in his absence. Sharon also had said he would be watching to see whether Arafat made comments deemed inflammatory at the summit.
Mubarak said he had advised Arafat not to attend.
"Let's imagine how the situation would have been with the Palestinian Authority leader and all the Arab leaders attending and he (Arafat) would not be allowed to go back, with the summit's attention all on the Saudi initiative and suddenly shifting to how to get Arafat back to his land," Mubarak said.
Mubarak said Israel was treating Arafat like a "school boy."
"I was sort of depressed and felt intimidated because an Arab leader was being treated like this," he said, adding he also felt Israel was balking at taking steps toward ending Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Jordan's King Abdullah II bowed out of the gathering Wednesday, without explanation. Jordanian Prime Minister Ali Abul-Ragheb did attend, however, and in opening remarks confirmed his country support for the Saudi initiative.