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Assessing the 'summit of challenges'

Marwan Bishara answers three questions on the Arab League summit in Doha.

Last Modified: 27 Mar 2013 07:19
Marwan Bishara

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.
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Syrian National Coalition leader Moaz Al-Khatib urged his Arab counterparts to release political prisoners and spread justice in their homelands [Reuters]

What has the Arab League summit achieved?

The most important breakthrough of the 24th Arab League Summit is the welcoming of the National Coalition for the Syrian opposition to take Syria's seat at the League.

In an unprecedented and daring step, the League granted a revolutionary opposition the place of a standing regime in the umbrella Arab organisation.

The Coalition's leader, Moaz Al-Khatib, delivered a passionate speech to the entire League that condemned the violence of Bashar al-Assad's regime and asked both the Arab world and the international community to help the Syrian people defend themselves from the wrath of the Assad dictatorship.

For all practical purpose, and despite the reluctance of Iraq and Algeria, the move has left the Assad regime totally isolated within the Arab world that Syria has long claimed to champion its causes.

Moreover, the move to grant a seat to the National Coalition has also left the regime exposed and lacking of official and political Arab legitimacy, rendering it a mere security nuisance to its people and the region.

With its decision to take the case of Syria to the United Nations, the League hopes to further internationalise Assad's isolation, including the replacement of Assad ambassadors with those of the opposition government.

While the League left the door open for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, the Summit went further in its final statement to affirm the right of each member state to assist the Syrian revolution in any way it finds suitable, including the delivery of arms to defend the Syrian people. 

What about Palestine? There seemed to be a lot of talk about it?

Yes, Palestine has taken centre stage, despite the overwhelming urgency of the Syrian situation.

After welcoming the recognition of the Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly, the League's support for Palestine was underlined on three levels:

All the Arab leaders affirmed the centrality of the Palestinian cause to the Arab world, demanding first and foremost an end to the Israeli occupation and the recognition of Palestinian statehood for all the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, including East Jerusalem. This seems to come as an implicit response to President Obama's rather wobbly position on how to resolve conflict. 

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The League has also welcomed the Qatari initiative of establishing a $1bn fund to be housed at the Islamic Bank in support of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem to which Doha committed $250m.

And third, the summit called for a mini Arab summit to be held soon in Cairo, in order to reach a national reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions: the secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas.

Such Palestinian unity is deemed indispensable to reconnect the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and Fatah-controlled West Bank, strengthen the Palestinian position vis-a-vis Israel, and pave the way for stronger Arab Palestinian coordination in the future.

How is this summit different from the previous ones? 

Gone are the days of Gaddafi's circus and others' dreary speeches. And gone are the days of total disconnect between the leaders' deliberations and the public sentiments.

With six new leaders present (Libya, Tunis, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Morocco), the popular national Arab aspirations have never been more represented than in Doha.

Arab Spring leaders brought along a new sense of urgency in terms of transparency and accountability, and reflected a spirit of renewal not felt since the League's inception in the mid-1940s.

It was remarkable to hear the new Syrian leader Moaz Al-Khatib urge his Arab counterparts to release political prisoners and spread justice in their homelands.

Arab solidarity seemed more sincere during this summit than had in previous ones. In the past, leaders simply paid lip service to their less fortunate Arab "brethren" elsewhere in the region.

Alas, they still pay lip service to women's rights, common defence, economic integration and important issues and agreements that continue to collect dust at the shelves of the Arab league offices in Cairo.

But as its Secretary General Nabil al-Arabi said in his opening statement, the Arab League Charter needs to be amended to suit the new era, just as the organisation is in dire need for reform.

One important initiative is the formation of an Arab human rights court to prevent further deterioration of the human rights situation in any given Arab country.

Paradoxically, while there is clearly a greater will to affect change in Palestine, Syria and other regional hotspots, the Arab leaders - especially of the Arab Spring nations - seem even more preoccupied with their own internal affairs.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst of Al Jazeera English and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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