"The key to a solution is in the hands of the Lebanese. They have their country, constitution and institutions," he said.

The Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders stayed away after Washington urged its allies to think twice before attending the summit of the 22-member Arab League.

Lebanon boycott


The seat earmarked for Lebanon was left vacant after Fouad Siniora, Lebanon's prime minister, said his government had decided to boycott the two-day conference because the country should be represented by the president.

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Lebanon has been without a president since Emile Lahoud's term ended in November as the government and Syrian-backed opposition have been unable to reach agreement.

The summit is due to re-endorse an Arab League initiative for Lebanon which calls for the election of Michel Sleiman, army chief general, as president.

In Beirut, university students tore up pictures of the Syrian president, branding him an "assassin" as he chaired the Arab summit boycotted by Lebanon.

But Syria trumpeted the absence of US allies as a triumph over Washington's influence. 

Deeply divided

Amr Moussa, the Arab league chief, spoke of a deeply divided summit which has only solidified the rift between Syria and US allies in the Middle East.

 

He echoed words from in his speech from last year's summit, in which he declared that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was dead.

Urging Arab foreign ministers to meet in mid-2008, Moussa also asked for leaders attending the conference to reconsider their options on Israel and the current negotiations if no progress is seen in the next few weeks.


Assad also questioned how long Arab nations can keep offering Israel peace negotiations.

Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, repeated his request for international peacekeepers to be sent to the Gaza Strip, but Saturday marked the first time he had urged Arab countries to send troops.

The summit comes as Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state is heading to the region this weekend for talks with Arab and Israeli leaders on the peace process.

Peace process

In his speech, Abbas took a pessimistic tone over the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations which were renewed in December.

"If we don't reach a solution by the end of this year, it means the whole region will be on the verge of a new era of tension and loss of confidence
in peace"


Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president
"The coming couple of months are decisive. If we don't reach a solution by the end of this year, it means the whole region will be on the verge of a new era of tension and loss of confidence in peace," he said.

He also criticised Israeli settlement expansion and the recent military assaults in the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire on Israeli towns.

The Palestinian president called on Arab leaders to renew the endorsement of the Arab peace initiative, pressuring Israel to stop settelement expansion, remove road blocks and lift the siege on Gaza.

Assad warned that Arab countries may have to seek alternatives to a 2002 Arab peace plan if Israel continues to refuse to accept it.

The proposal offers Israel full peace with Arab nations if it withdraws from Arab lands and allows the creation of a Palestinian state.

"The question is: Do we leave the peace process and initiatives hostage to the whims of successive Israeli governments, or do we search for choices and substitutes that can achieve a just and comprehensive peace?" Assad said.