RAMALLAH, West Bank – One by one, Arab leaders addressed the Arab summit in Beirut Wednesday while Yasser Arafat stared at the TV screen in his office and waited for his turn to speak via satellite on behalf of the Palestinians. But his turn never came.
The apparent snub angered not only Arafat's inner circle, but also regular Palestinians who cheered and clapped when their delegation walked out of the Beirut conference hall in protest.
The United Arab Emirates also decreased their number of representatives in support of the Palestinians.
As of Wednesday night, there were ongoing efforts to patch up the dispute. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri said Arafat would speak Thursday, and Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath, who was in Beirut, said a Thursday speech was possible.
But there were conflicting reports over whether the delegation would remain in the Lebanese capital. Arafat spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh said Arafat had given them "firm and strict instructions to leave Beirut as soon as possible."
In the Titanic coffee shop in Gaza City, customers watching Wednesday's proceedings on TV likened Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, who presided over the summit session, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has refused to lift a travel ban on Arafat, despite U.S. pressure.
"These collaborators have served Sharon to the end," said Raouf Abu Ali, a 22-year-old Gaza University student.
The incident enforced the deep suspicions many Palestinians have about Arab intentions toward them, despite repeated declarations of solidarity. Arafat has tense relations with several Arab states, particularly Syria, which has shunned him for agreeing to negotiate with Israel.
Arafat initially planned to attend the Beirut summit, whose key event was the formal presentation of a Saudi peace plan — an offer to Israel of normal relations with the Arab world in exchange for withdrawal from all territories it occupied in the 1967 Mideast war. However, Sharon announced late Tuesday that conditions for lifting the travel ban on Arafat had not yet been met.
Earlier Wednesday, Palestinian officials announced that Arafat would address the summit by live satellite hookup from his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.
A senior Arafat aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Palestinian leader watched the proceedings on a TV screen in his office and became increasingly agitated when it became clear he would not be able to speak.
Several times, the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, which broadcast the summit session live, cut to Arafat in Ramallah, showing him sitting behind a desk and waiting for his turn to speak to the Arab leaders.
Lebanese Culture Minister Ghassan Salameh, the summit spokesman, later said Lahoud gave preference to speakers present in the hall, and that he hoped Arafat's speech could be broadcast in a later session.
"There is a certain protocol we had to stick to, but our Palestinian friends wanted Chairman Arafat to speak first," Salameh said.
Lebanese officials also said there was concern that Israel could interfere with a live satellite hookup, and might use it to beam Sharon into the conference hall.
Farouk Kaddoumi, a senior PLO official who was in the conference hall in Beirut, said Arafat was to have spoken after Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Kaddoumi said he raised his hand after Assad's speech to get the attention of Lahoud so arrangements could be made for Arafat's turn. Kaddoumi said the Lebanese president ignored him, and that the Palestinian delegation walked out.
Arafat, meanwhile, delivered his speech live on Al-Jazeera, but those at the summit could not hear him. He made no reference to what had just happened, and read from a prepared text, welcoming the Saudi peace plan.
"In the name of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership, I would assert here our welcome of the courageous initiative which was declared by Crown Prince Abdullah regarding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," Arafat said.
"At this summit, this initiative, God willing, will turn into an Arab initiative for the peace of the brave between us and the Israeli people and Jews in the world," Arafat said, adding holiday greetings to Jews at the start of their Passover holiday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.