The two-day annual gathering of leaders of the 22-member Arab League begins in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Monday.

  

"An Egyptian document containing ideas and plans for the future Middle East was presented and sparked discussions that were sometimes stormy," one official said, adding that "the majority wanted it to be adopted by the summit."

  

"But some countries, such as Syria and Lebanon, believe it is not necessary to present a reform plan now, when the priority should be the Arab-Israeli conflict,"   the official said.

  

Adding to the tension was the bitter memory of the assassination on Monday by Israeli forces of Shaikh Ahmad Yasin, spiritual guide to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

  

Differences

 

Disagreements emerged at an informal gathering of the ministers on Thursday, prompting certain delegates to suggest the summit might be postponed.

 

Saudi prince Abd Allah bin Abd
al-Aziz not to attend summit

It was a possibility that gained credibility from a Saudi announcement that Crown Prince Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz would not attend the summit.

  

Algerian President Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika later said he had heard officially that some countries wanted the summit to be postponed.

  

But Arab Secretary General Amr Mussa insisted the summit would go ahead as planned and denied that it would be put off.

  

Arab states opposed to discussing reforms maintain that the summit should limit itself to adopting a firm position on Israel that demands an Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory occupied since 1967.

  

They say a proposal by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza should be considered within the framework of the "roadmap," an international plan aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  

But countries backing the Egyptian document insist that settling the Arab-Israeli dispute must "go hand in hand with reform," commented another senior Arab official.

  

"To ignore the Arab-Israeli conflict and undertake reform as if it didn't exist is not realistic," he said.

  

"Just as it would not be realistic to ignore the need for reform because of the conflict. The two have to move in tandem,"  the official said.

  

Denial

 

Arab states backing the Egyptian initiative also deny they have been influenced by the Bush administration's own visions of a "Greater Middle East."

 

Yassin assassination has altered
situation, said a delegate

Jordan Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher said "the region must present its own reform initiative in order to prevent the imposition of reforms from the outside."

  

Another delegate said "the (Egyptian) document had enough momentum to be adopted but the assassination of Shaikh Yasin has changed the atmosphere at the summit," he added.

  

An Arab official disclosed that the Egyptian reform document "mentions all basic freedoms - women's rights, civil liberties, legal reform, economic modernisation and the promotion of knowledge."

  

"The summit would leave it up to each country to implement the reforms at its own pace," another delegate explained.

  

"Even if it's just words, the fact that an Arab summit adopted a reform plan would change the general climate."

 

Intentional blow

  

Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath, meanwhile, charged that the killing of Yasin was "an intentional blow against the summit by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon."

 

"Sharon's goal is to harm the summit and to influence the climate at the meeting"

Nabil Shaath,
Foreign Minister,
Palestine Authority

"Sharon's goal is to harm the summit and to influence the climate at the meeting," he told journalists as he travelled from Amman to Tunis.

  

An Arab summit in March 2002 in Beirut adopted a Saudi plan that offered Israel normal relations with the Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied territories.

  

"The plan is still adequate because it defies Israel's expansionist aims and its assassination policy," Shaath said, stressing that the Palestinian Authority opposes "the killing of civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian."

  

On Iraq there appears to be Arab unanimity.

  

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said his country had presented a plan on the future of Iraq "based on the decision taken by Arab ministers in Cairo."

  

That initiative re-affirmed support for Iraq's territorial unity and sovereignty and stressed the need to develop a role for the United Nations in the country.