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Monday October 23, 2000

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Arab leaders may cut Israel ties

By The Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt - An Arab summit called to confront a frightening and deadly upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence ended yesterday with a declaration that Arabs may consider cutting ties with Israel, but did not insist they do so.

Among ordinary Arabs, the outcome was likely to fuel criticism already being heard: that Arab leaders are divided and unwilling to confront Israel. The first Arab summit in four years followed the collapse of a cease-fire Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and President Clinton helped broker last week at Egypt's Sharm el-Sheik resort.

A carefully worded final summit declaration addressed what had emerged as the most contentious issue before the leaders meeting in Cairo: Whether ties several have with the Jewish state should be reconsidered.

Libya had walked out Saturday, the first day of the two-day summit, saying it was frustrated that the gathering would not clearly call for an end to ties with Israel.

In Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Barak praised summit host Mubarak for making "considerable effort to maintain a balanced approach, which calls for peace and restraint, instead of an extremist stance." But he also said Israel "rejects the threatening language" used in the final declaration.

That left the door open for Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, to continue acting as a regional mediator, a role the United States looks to it to play. Egypt called the Cairo summit and was the main voice of moderation during its proceedings.

Barak also told his Cabinet that Israel should take a "time-out" to reassess the peace process in the wake of violence that Israelis and Palestinians each blame the other for instigating.

Arabs "hold Israel responsible for any steps taken in regard to relations with Israel by Arab countries, including their cancelation," said the final Arab summit declaration, read by Arab League Secretary-General Esmat Abdel-Meguid to a live television audience across the region.

At a news conference, Abdel-Meguid said Tunisia cut low-level ties established with Israel three years ago. Tunisia's Foreign Affairs ministry said late Saturday the decision was made in light of "the dangerous escalation ... of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people."

Oman severed its low-level relations Oct. 12.

Referring to establishing new ties, the summit declaration said: "Arab leaders assert in the light of the collapse of the peace process their commitment to standing up to Israeli attempts to infiltrate the Arab world under any name and to the halting of establishing any relations with Israel."

Egypt and Jordan have full diplomatic relations with Israel. Mauritania, a west African nation that is a member of the Arab League, opened diplomatic relations with Israel in January. Qatar has low-level ties.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said Egypt had not yet had time to consider whether they would end or reduce ties with Israel.

Libya had said cutting ties was the least Arabs could do in response to more than three weeks of Israeli-Palestinian violence that have left some 120 dead - the vast majority Palestinian.

Moderates at the summit, though, warned against doing anything that might make future negotiations difficult. Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel, insist negotiations are the only way to bring lasting peace to the region.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Saturday: "Our choice is the choice of permanent, just and comprehensive peace."

As he prepared to leave Cairo following the Arab summit, Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo said Israel's "time-out" was "a message of war" even though the Arabs had chosen peace.

"Our policy is still balanced, we want peace, we extend our hand for peace but on bases different from those that Barak wants to impose by force on us and the whole Arab world," Abed Rabbo said.

The Arab summit also called on the United Nations to investigate the causes of the violence, a rejection of a similar U.S.-led committee called for at the recent Israeli-Palestinian summit in Egypt. The Arabs said an international court similar to the Rwandan and Yugoslav war crimes tribunals should be formed to try "those responsible for the violence."

The summit declaration asked the United Nations to consider forming an international force to protect Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Mubarak had opened the summit with an acknowledgment of Arabs' anger, but warned against "surrendering to our emotions." Mubarak also called on Israel to prove that it, too, wanted peace.

In all 16 heads of state, including the acting head of state of Saudi Arabia, attended, representing: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

The remaining six Arab League members - Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Mauritania, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - were represented by deputies of their heads of state.