Disarray plagued the opening of a summit meant to unite the Arab world Wednesday as Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah laid out his proposal for a comprehensive land-for-peace pact with Israel.
Key players didn't show up for the gathering of Arab leaders in the Lebanese capital; the Palestinians walked out when Yasser Arafat was not allowed to speak; and the No. 2 Saudi delegate suffered a stroke. During a break between sessions, officials tried to keep the Palestinian delegation — said to have collected its passports at the hotel desk — from departing.
Still, Arafat welcomed Abdullah's call for the Arab world to offer Israel "normal relations" and security in return for a full withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967, recognition of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as a capital and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
The White House praised the Saudi royal's "leadership" in making the overture. President Bush "urges other leaders to build on the crown prince's ideas to address the cause of peace in the troubled region," spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
But Israel was cool to the initiative. Aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the term "normal relations" was too vague and rejected any right of return for refugees. Sharon has also rejected any full withdrawal from occupies territories.
If adopted by the Arab summit, Abdullah's proposal would be the clearest comprehensive peace offer by the Arab world to Israel. But the initiative could see some changes as a league committee turns it into a formal proposal. Syrian President Bashar Assad welcomed the proposal but said he would propose some alterations, insisting it needed to be "fortified" before approval.
The crown prince made some changes of his own from the ideas he first floated last month in comments to The New York Times, adding the reference to the right of return, a long-standing Arab demand.
He also slightly changed his offer to Israel to "normal relations" instead of "full normalization," the term he initially used. Israel's Ranaan Gissin said the new term could mean only formal recognition between governments, instead of warmer trade, tourism and cultural exchanges implied by "normalization."
Still, Abdullah appeared to have so far resisted pressure from Syria and other hardline states to water down the wording to an even vaguer phrasing of "a comprehensive peace." In the past, Arabs have used normal relations and normalization to mean exchanging ambassadors, trade and cultural exchanges and other ties typical of amicable neighbors.
In a 10-minute speech that brought applause from the delegations, Abdullah said: "I tell the Israeli people that if their government gives up the policy of force and suppression and accepts genuine peace, we will not hesitate in accepting the Israeli people's right to live in security with the rest of the people in the region."
He said the Arabs should submit a collective plan to the U.N. Security Council based on "normal relations and the security of Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab lands, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital and the return of the refugees."
An official Saudi English text translated "al-Quds al-Sharif," Arabic for "noble Jerusalem," as "east Jerusalem," the sector of the city seized by Israel in 1967. Israel claims the entire city as its capital.
"We have a very positive speech from" Abdullah, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "He talked about the future of the Middle East in which there is security for all, including Israel. ...We hope that the Arab League Summit will endorse the crown prince's remarks."
As the summit's first day was wrapping up, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a hotel dining room in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya. Israeli police said 15 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
Out of 22 Arab League member states, a dozen leaders were missing, many of them elderly heads of state with health problems. Most significant of the no-shows were three key moderates: Arafat, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan. Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab state to have signed peace deals with Israel, in 1979 and 1994 respectively.
Israel said the night before the summit that its conditions had not been met for lifting a travel ban on Arafat to let him go to Beirut, and Arafat decided not to try to attend, calling Israeli demands he sign a cease-fire first "blackmail." Mubarak said he stayed home out of solidarity with Arafat, sending his prime minister instead.
The Jordanian king also bowed out at the last minute, with his officials saying he was exhausted and had a sore throat after a recent long trip abroad.
The Palestinian delegation, headed by PLO foreign minister Farouk Kaddoumi, stormed out of Wednesday's session after the Lebanese organizers refused to let Arafat address the leaders live by satellite hookup from the West Bank city of Ramallah.
President Emile Lahoud said Lebanon had asked that Arafat's statement be prerecorded because "live transmission contains some dangers because of the possibility of Israelis interfering with the line." One Lebanese official insisted Sharon might replace Arafat's signal with one of his own and beam a message to the summit.
Efforts went into the night to resolve the dispute. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri said Arafat would address the gathering on its second and final day Thursday. But Hariri did not say whether the address would be live or taped, and Palestinian officials did not confirm.
The United Arab Emirates sent home the head of its delegation, with the official Emirates News Agency saying the downgrade was in response to the bar on Arafat speaking and because "summit work was being conducted in a manner that, regretfully, was not befitting the hopes and aspirations of the Arab street."
Bahrain's king also left — though not in a protest walk-out: He headed to Jordan for talks with the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchs on Thursday.
Prince Nawaf, the Saudi intelligence chief and the No. 2 in the delegation, suffered a brain hemorrhage and was operated on in Beirut Wednesday, Lebanese and Saudi officials said.