Arab leaders display unity at Tunis summit, reject ‘foreign interventions’ in the region

The Tunis gathering brought together 14 kings or presidents, a sign of Tunisia’s diplomatic standing and of the respect enjoyed by its president in the region.
Sunday 07/04/2019
Arab leaders pose for a family picture during the 30th Arab League Summit in Tunis, March 31. (dpa)
United front. Arab leaders pose for a family picture during the 30th Arab League Summit in Tunis, March 31. (dpa)

TUNIS - Arab leaders showed a united front against the region’s main challenges at their annual summit, including opposition to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, and rejected foreign interference in the region’s affairs.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi hailed the March 31 gathering as an “achievement” and said attendance was “exceptional.” “We offered all the conditions of comfort for our honourable guests. That’s what we did,” he said.

“For the first time, we did not hear or witness any bickering or unpleasant verbal exchanges from one or other leader at this summit, although these incidents occurred during previous meetings,” Caid Essebsi added.

The summit bolstered Caid Essebsi image as a respected leader in the region ahead of presidential elections in November. Throughout the meeting, the 92-yer old president demonstrated mental agility and exceptional stamina. 

His supporters see him as the standard bearer in the secularist camp with the best chance to do well against any candidate backed by the powerful Islamists although Caid Essebsi has yet to announce whether he will seek another term as president. 

The Arab leaders stated in a final declaration “that the Golan is occupied Syrian territory according to international law, the decisions of the United Nations and the [UN] Security Council.”

A separate statement dedicated solely to the issue called Washington’s move “invalid and illegitimate.”

“It is true that America is the strongest military force in the world but its decision is absolutely worthless,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said March 31 at a summit-closing news conference.

Trump signed a proclamation March 25 recognising Israel’s claim over the strategic plateau, which it seized during the 1967 war and officially annexed in 1981. Israel’s move has not been recognised internationally and three Security Council resolutions have called for it to withdraw from the territory.

Trump’s shift on the Golan issue had already drawn angry reactions from Arab capitals, even as the United States sought to shore up support in the region to offset Iran’s influence and target extremism.

“We, the leaders of the Arab countries gathered in Tunisia… express our rejection and condemnation of the United States’ decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan,” Aboul Gheit said, reading from the summit’s final communique.

He said Arab countries would present a draft resolution to the Security Council and seek a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice regarding the US announcement.

The Arab League warned other countries against following Washington’s lead.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said Riyadh “absolutely rejects” any measures affecting Syria’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who also addressed the meeting, said any resolution to the Syrian conflict must guarantee the territorial integrity of Syria, “including the occupied Golan Heights.”

Another focus of Arab consensus was support for the Palestinian cause. Caid Essebsi said it needs to be made clear that the international community understands the “centrality of the Palestinian cause” to Arab nations.

In the summit final statement, Arab leaders renewed support for an Arab initiative that offers Israel peace in exchange for its withdrawal from all lands occupied in the 1967 war as well as seeking to revive negotiations with the Jewish state.

There was criticism against the role of non-Arab regional powers in Middle East’s crises. Aboul Gheit said: “The Arab countries’ crisis is transient and temporary but infringing on Arab complementarity and territorial integrity is rejected from an Arab perspective.”

Caid Essebsi said it was “unacceptable” that “Arab issues that are directly connected to our national security be managed outside the framework of joint Arab action.”

He denounced “interventions of our regional neighbours, especially Iran and Turkey” and said that such “interventions only added to the complexity of the crises, prolonged and compounded them.”

The Arab leaders said relations with Iran should “be based on good neighbourliness, non-interference in internal affairs, the non-use of force or threats and refraining from practices and actions that would undermine confidence and stability in the region.”

Iran praised the summit as “most positive” compared to previous meetings.

There was speculation during the summit that the denunciation by the summit of Iranian and Turkish encroachment was the reason for the early departure from the summit by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

Doha’s alleged ties to Islamic extremists and Iran have been at the root of a dispute between Qatar and the Arab Quartet — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — since June 2017.

To try to offset fallout of a diplomatic and economic boycott imposed by the quartet, Qatar moved closer to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Turkish government.

Sheikh Tamim left in the middle of Aboul Gheit’s speech, which singled out Doha’s allies Turkey and Iran for undermining regional stability.

Caid Essebsi rejected speculation about Sheikh Tamim’s early departure, saying it was agreed on from the start.  “I want to clarify that he had accepted our invitation out respect of respect for us and had informed us from the beginning that he would not attend all the meetings and would not deliver a speech,” the Tunisian president said.

The prominent role played by Saudi Arabia in the summit was described as a possible factor in Qatar’s displayed lack of interest in fully attending the meeting.

Syria’s seat at the summit was vacant, an empty chair facing the country’s flag. Damascus has been suspended from the Arab League since November 2011. Diplomats said the Arab League members have not reached a consensus on whether to readmit Syria.

The Tunis gathering brought together 14 kings or presidents, a sign of Tunisia’s diplomatic standing and of the respect enjoyed by its president in the region.

Aboul Gheit described the gathering as “a very excellent summit because of the good number of Arab leaders attending it and the results it has reached.”

“We will make sure that the summit’s decisions will be implemented,” he said.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said: “The final declaration comprising 17 points is comprehensive to tackle the main issues facing the Arab nation. It showed the strength and determination of the Arabs to find out practical solutions to their main challenges.”