What a difference a year makes. In January 2009, Arab League summitry was in disarray. Members assembling to discuss the Gaza crisis couldn’t even agree on holding a single, unified summit: “moderates” met in Kuwait that month and “radicals” in Doha, Qatar, with factional differences centering on suspicion of Iran and the rift between Fatah and Hamas. When the annual Arab League summit convened in March 2009, observers largely agreed with this assessment that the meeting ended ingloriously, yielding no decisions of substance.
The atmosphere is markedly different as the 2010 summit opens this week in Sirte, Libya. For one thing, with Libya acting as host, it appears that longstanding disputes between Muammar Qaddafi and the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are being papered over. Lebanon’s President Suleiman will not attend the summit due to a Lebanese grudge against Qaddafi dating to 1978, but he’s the only holdout. Lebanon will probably send a lower-level delegation; pressure is mounting for a show of unity by the league’s membership. Saudi Arabia is also hard at work on brokering a last-minute reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas so that a unified Palestinian delegation can be assembled for the leaders’ meetings on March 27 and 28.
The push for unity, in conjunction with Libya’s de facto readmission to the ranks of the respectable, distinguishes this summit from its predecessors over the past decade. And there is no mistaking the basis on which Libya has been restored to the fold: Qaddafi has spent the past 18 months accusing Israel of fomenting strife in Africa, charging Israel with genocide in the UN, and agreeing with Bashar al-Assad that the Arab nations must “unite against Israel.”
Reports this week have concentrated on the upcoming summit’s agenda of unifying Arabs to “rescue Jerusalem.” The wording of that theme seems to have emerged after the Obama administration overreacted to Israel’s March 9 announcement on construction in East Jerusalem. A presentation outlining the “occupation” of Jerusalem since 1967 is now promised as a summit event, with the yet-to-be-assembled Palestinian delegation on the hook to brief it.
In light of the energy building for this summit, Tuesday’s news that the Arab League is seeking closer cooperation with Iran strikes an ominous note. The impetus for that move comes as much from the regional perception that U.S. policy is ineffective as from any other source. Obama proposes, moreover, to shore up the Arab nations against Iran by arming them, an approach hardly calculated to act as a brake on anti-Israel rhetoric or actions. With Russia making landmark arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Libya (as well as Kuwait and Algeria), conditions are ripening for partisan saber-rattling — as they deteriorate for honestly brokered negotiations and a peaceful resolution.
Support for Israel in the U.S. Congress is an encouraging sign after the barrage of rhetorical attacks from the Obama administration. But it’s the president whose signals are typically decisive for both allies and opponents abroad. The Arab League’s members have been reading Obama’s signals for more than a year now. Their posture in Sirte this weekend will be a reflection of the effect he has had.