Despair is the only possible reaction to Ariel Sharon's statement made last night in Israel that the conditions are not right to allow Yassir Arafat to attend the Arab League summit in Beirut which begins today. The arrogance and blindness revealed by this decision are quite frightening in both their short and long term implications. Even after every allowance is made for Israel's anger with the Palestinian leader because of his failure to acede to its demands, it is still impossible to understand what possible advantage it can be to Israel that Arafat's chair will not be occupied at the Arab League conference table in Beirut. The Saudi Arabian peace plan for the Middle East is the main item on the agenda at this meeting and although its chances of being adopted in a sufficiently comprehensive form are small they will most certainly not be helped by the absence of the man at the very centre of the problem it seeks to address. From a different perspective the US government is unlikely to be pleased by Mr Sharon's decision. Its effort to garner Arab understanding for its position on Iraq hard enough in the best of circumstances - will not be assisted by the humiliation that its client state Israel has now heaped on Yassir Arafat. The fact that Sharon cares so little for Arab opinion beyond Palestine shows how difficult impossible even - it is going to be to restart the peace process while he reamins in office.
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