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No Truce, No Summit

Yasser Arafat's attendance at this week's Arab summit hangs in the balance as no Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire could be agreed before the meeting.

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Still in confinement - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

Arab foreign ministers met on Monday ahead of an Arab League summit that could embrace a Middle East peace plan, even if Israel prevents Palestinian President Yasser Arafat from attending.

The ministers gathered in a luxury hotel in Beirut to discuss a Saudi plan offering Israel peace and normal relations in return for all Arab land occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

The plan has international backing as a possible end to 18 months of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, but Palestinian officials say Arafat may skip the summit rather than accept Israeli demands that he implement a ceasefire before going.

"If this issue (Arafat’s travel) is going to be a sword at the neck of Palestinian negotiatiors to accept the Israeli security conditions, it would be possible to sacrifice going to the summit", Palestinian commander Mohammed Dahlen told Reuters.

Still in confinement

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has still not decided whether to let Arafat travel to the Lebanese capital for the summit on Wednesday and Thursday.

But Arafat's chances of seeing Beirut for the first time since Israeli invasion troops drove him out in 1982 looked slim, as another round of US-led Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire talks ended inconclusively overnight and violence raged on in the occupied territories, where Arafat is confined.

A new round of talks with American peace envoy Anthony Zinni is due to take place on Monday. The outcome of the meeting will influence Israeli prime minister Scharon’s decision whether to let Arafat travel to Beirut or not.

Two diplomatic carrots

Arafat, the Palestinian leader kept in the West Bank city of Ramallah since December, has two diplomatic carrots dangling in front of him.

Not only has he been invited to the summit in Beirut later this week. He has also been offered a possible meeting with US Vice-president Dick Cheney.

The first would be an opportunity to garner support from Arab leaders, the second to get a foot in the door of the White House.

But for both, Arafat must agree to a ceasefire which includes the reining in on the Palestinan uprising which has been causing bloodshed for months – if necessary, by force.

However, doubts prevail as to whether a ceasefire will be achieved before the meeting in Beirut opens on Wednesday.

European attempts

US officials are keen for Arafat to go to Beirut. But both US, and European efforts have proved fruitless.

Hopes that Arafat would attend a planned meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to discuss Middle East peace efforts this week were disappointed on Friday. "It is not at all likely that this meeting can take place," Aznar, who met Arafat last November said, citing circumstances in the Middle East.

A diplomatic source had earlier told Reuters in Madrid of plans for a meeting at an undisclosed location in southern Spain this Tuesday between Arafat and Aznar.

It would have been Arafat's first trip outside his Ramallah headquarters since the Israeli travel ban was imposed in December.

Spain has taken a strong stance towards Middle East politics since it took over EU presidency in January. Earlier this year, Eygpt’s Ambassador to Spain, Hussein Haridi, said Spain clearly believed that Israel’s practices did not pave the way for resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Spain strongly rejected such practices against the Palestinian National Authority and leader Yasser Arafat personally, he added, including Arafat’s confinement in Ramallah.

Beirut in Ramallah

The problem for Israel is that a decision against Arafat’s attendance at the Arab League summit could possibly backfire.

"If we don’t let him go, the Beirut summit will be in Ramallah", Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres warned on Saturday.

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