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Arabs looking backward

THERE WAS an Arab League summit meeting last week in Algiers, and apart from a bizarre tirade by the Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy, the event was noteworthy more for what the assembled notables chose not to say than for what they did. If liberal forces eventually replace the authoritarian political order that prevails in most Arab states, future generations in those countries will look back on the Algiers gathering as a display of extraordinary obtuseness by rulers who refused to heed the tremors under their feet.

The league did reaffirm a Saudi Mideast peace initiative that it originally adopted two years ago in Beirut. In so doing, the members rejected a proposal from King Abdullah II of Jordan to begin establishing normalized relations with Israel. He had argued that by recognizing Israel now, Arabs could help extract meaningful concessions from Israel, thereby hastening the creation of a Palestinian state and a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Instead, the league repeated its previous conditions for considering normalization: a prior Israeli return of all occupied Arab territory and recognition of Palestinian refugees' right of return, which could be fulfilled either by repatriation or material compensation. ''We are not going to move even one millimeter away from this," the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa declared before the start of the summit. Presumably because of this rejection, Jordan's King Abdullah chose not to attend the Algiers event. Jordan's foreign minister complained to his counterparts that they were oblivious to the flux of events. ''Arabs cannot read history well," he said.

It was left to the irascible Khadafy to offend or confound all parties. Addressing the newly elected Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas by his familiar name, Khadafy said: ''Don't be angry, Abu Mazen, but the Palestinians are idiots and the Israelis are idiots." The secretary general of Fatah, Abbas's political party, asked Khadafy to apologize for words that ''offended the feelings of all Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims."

Back home in Libya, Khadafy is keeping a leading opposition figure, Fathi el-Jahmi, in harsh prison conditions for speaking out in favor of democracy, the release of political prisoners, and a free press. Like his peers in Algiers, Khadafy ignored the astonishing popular demonstrations in Beirut against Syria's occupation of Lebanon, the crucial precedent of Abbas's election, the spectacle of 8 million Iraqis going to the polls, and the genocide being perpetrated in the Darfur region of Sudan by the National Islamic Front rulers of that country, who will host the next Arab League summit in 2006.

Maybe by then the league will have caught up with history.

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