Although its peace plan remains formally on the agenda, Saudi Arabia has emerged from the ruins of a collapsed Arab summit conference here with its first major diplomatic initiative in a shambles.
The breakup after only one round of private speeches demonstrated the tenacity of Arab leaders who refused to make the first gesture toward Israel and the limits of Saudi influence even with the millions of petrodollars flowing from Riyadh to various Arab capitals.
The result, in the view of Arab sources here, is likely to be a retreat by Saudi Arabia into the caution and reserve that had been hallmarks of the kingdom's royal family for years. This in turn, these sources said, could muzzle the Arab world's most prominent moderate voice, leaving more room on the stage for hard-line nations such as Libya, Iraq and Syria.
"There were three main winners at this conference," said a Palestine Liberation Organization official. "They were the United States, Israel and the radical Arabs."
This is so, he explained, because the United States no longer will feel obliged to deal with a serious peace proposal offered by one close Middle East ally and bitterly opposed by another. Israel, he went on, is rid for the foreseeable future of a plan it feared had the chance of gaining momentum in Europe and perhaps even Washington. As for the radical Arabs, he said, they once again are relieved of the obligation to seriously consider an idea with which they feel uncomfortable -- recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state limited to the West Bank and Gaza.
It was their refusal to come to grips with the question that lead King Hassan II of Morocco, host and chairman, to end the summit conference last night only 5 1/2 hours after it had opened to the customary calls for Arab unity.
According to conference sources, Hassan expressed strong regret that eight of 21 Arab League members sent delegations that did not include chiefs of state. This remark was aimed particularly at Syria's President Hafez Assad, who despite vigorous Saudi efforts to enlist his attendance remained in Damascus to dramatize his opposition to the eight-point plan put forward last summer by Crown Prince Fahd.
Iraq and Libya, two of the Arab world's most implacable enemies of Israel, also were represented by lesser delegations. But their prickly attitude was well known and, by Saudi and Moroccan measure, less important.
Syria, the major state hostile to Israel since Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Jerusalem, is the key to any Arab peace strategy because of its prestige and geography. In addition, it exercises decisive political and military influence over the PLO because of its role in Lebanon.
Responding to Hassan's veiled attack against Syria's sense of responsibility, Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul Halim Khaddam, the delegation leader, strongly insisted he was qualified to speak in the name of his government. Conference sources said he accompanied his insistence with remarks suggesting that, unlike Arab monarchies such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Syria has modern institutions that allow for delegation of authority.
Bristling, Hassan lectured the Syrian minister, the sources recalled, saying that the discussion at hand concerned "war and peace" and was too important to be left to second-level officials without power to commit their nation to vital new steps.
At the same time, an angered Fahd, face to face with apparently irreconcilable opposition to the initiative, offered to withdraw it from consideration, the sources said, and Hassan intervened quickly to disband the conference rather than allow the peace proposals to die officially within the Arab League.
Hassan announced that Arab League foreign ministers will begin discussions soon with a view to reconvening the summit conference in a month or two. But several conference sources, including one who favors the Fahd plan, predicted the ministers' contacts will dribble away in the same discord that broke up the gathering of their leaders.
[In Cairo, meanwhile, the sudden breakup of the summit was regarded as a blow to Egyptian hopes for an early reconciliation with the Arab world, Washington Post correspondent David B. Ottaway reported. In an interview, Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali said he did not expect such a reconcilation would be possible before the other Arab states agreed to recognize and negotiate with Israel as the Fahd plan envisaged.]
[He made clear once again that Egypt had no intention of abandoning its peace treaty with Israel or the autonomy talks to faciliate a rapprochement with the other Arab states.]
[Asked how he interpreted the summit failure to take any decision on the Fahd plan, Ali replied, "that means the hardliners are prevailing."]
As Moroccan workers today collected the crowd control barriers and took down the bunting that had lined the streets of Fez' European quarter, one key question was whether Saudi Arabia will vigorously pursue its attempts to enlist support for the plan or write it off as a bad experience.
The eight proposals, which Fahd labeled "principles for peace," include much of the traditional Arab position on Arab-Israeli peace and sum up large chunks of U.N. Resolution 242. They specify the need for creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and reiterate the right of Palestinians to return to their homeland with compensation for those who choose not to.
The sticking point came in the seventh proposal: "Guarantees for the right of the states of the region to live in peace." This has been interpreted by many Arabs and Westerners -- and by Saudis in private -- as indirect recognition of Israel.
For Libya and Iraq, this amounted to a sell-out similar to that attributed to the late president Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who began the road that led to Camp David by recognizing Israel in Jerusalem in November 1977.
Reflecting this sentiment, the Libyan secretary in charge of foreign liaison -- in effect foreign minister -- Abdul Athi Bobidi said: "It would have been better if they had rejected it the Fahd plan outright."
Syria, according to Palestinian officials here, believes the implied recognition of Israel is unwise because it in effect gives up the Arabs' major strategic negotiating point without any guarantee of return concessions from Israel.
Reports from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, said Assad was demanding a major increase in Saudi aid in what he said was a necessary effort to finance military reinforcement to balance Syrian forces with those of Israel before making a gesture as outlined by Fahd.
Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, steered his usual zig-zag course among Arab capitals, endorsing the Saudi plan in one place and hinting at criticism of it in another, trying to offend neither his Saudi bankrollers nor his Syrian military patrons.
"Our position is playing one end against the other," said an Arafat aide here.