Led by Saudis, Arab leaders unite against Trump’s recognition of Golan Heights

Led by Saudis, Arab leaders unite against Trump’s recognition of Golan Heights

22-member league — minus Syria — condemns US president’s policies favoring Israel, but is not expected to take further action

Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019. (Zoubeir Souissi, Pool photo via AP)
Arab leaders pose for the camera, ahead of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019. (Zoubeir Souissi, Pool photo via AP)

TUNIS, Tunisia — Leaders meeting in Tunisia for the annual Arab League summit on Sunday were united in their condemnation of Trump administration policies seen as unfairly biased toward Israel but divided on a host of other issues, including whether to readmit founding member Syria.

Representatives from the 22-member league — minus Syria — aim to jointly condemn US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war, and Trump’s decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

At the opening of the summit, King Salman said Saudi Arabia “absolutely rejects any measures undermining Syria’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights” and supports the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

He added that Iran’s meddling was to blame for instability in the region.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz attends the opening session of the 30th Arab League summit in the Tunisian capital Tunis on March 31, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/Pool/AFP)

One of the few things that have united the Arab League over the last 50 years is the rejection of Israel’s control of the Golan Heights as well as East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israel also gained control of in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for a future state.

The international community, including the United States, largely shared that position until Trump upended decades of US policy by moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem last year and recognizing Israel’s 1981 extension of Israeli law to the strategic Golan plateau earlier this month.

The Arab leaders meeting in Tunisia are expected to issue a statement condemning those moves but are unlikely to take any further action.

That’s in part because regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have cultivated close ties with the Trump administration, viewing it as a key ally against their main rival, Iran. Both face Western pressure over their devastating three-year war with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and Riyadh is still grappling with the fallout from the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last year.

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said Saturday that Arab ministers had voiced support in a preparatory meeting for a declaration that Trump’s Golan move violates the UN Charter, which prohibits acquiring territories by force.

In Syria, small protests against Trump’s Golan move were held in different parts of the country and state media criticized the Arab summit. “The Golan is not awaiting support from the Arabs, and not a statement to condemn what Trump has done,” the Thawra newspaper said in an editorial that accused Arab leaders of taking their orders from the US and Israel.

Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani attends the opening of the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/ Pool photo via AP)

This year’s summit comes against a backdrop of ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, rival authorities in Libya and a lingering boycott of Qatar by four fellow League members. Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir skipped the meeting as they contend with mass protests against their long reigns.

The Arab League is expected to consider readmitting Syria, a founding member that was expelled in the early days of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad. But officials speaking ahead of the meeting said it was unlikely Syria would be welcomed back anytime soon.

The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus last year, and other Arab states have expressed support for restoring relations. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar have actively supported the rebels trying to overthrow Assad, and many other states view his government as an Iranian proxy that should continue to be shunned.

In a rare sign of easing tensions across another regional rift, King Salman and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani sat at the same sprawling table when the heads of delegations met Sunday. It was the first time the two leaders have appeared in the same room since Saudi Arabia led the boycott of Qatar nearly two years ago over Doha’s ties to Iran and its support for regional Islamist groups.

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