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Sunday, 18 January 2009

Syria urges full Arab boycott of Israel as divisions deepen over Gaza

President Assad says 2002 Arab League initiative no longer valid and urges member states to sever ties with Tel Aviv

Arab divisions over the Gaza crisis were dramatically underlined again today when Syria, the chief backer of the Palestinian group Hamas, called a groundbreaking peace plan dead and urged Arab states to sever all ties with Israel.

Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, told like-minded leaders meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar that the 2002 Arab peace initiative, backed by the entire 22-member Arab League, was no longer valid. Syria had already announced an end to its own talks with Israel, brokered by Turkey and focusing on the Golan Heights.

The Arab initiative promises recognition of Israel in return for a withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a just settlement of the Palestinian problem. It is widely considered to be the only basis on which a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement could be reached and has already attracted the attention of US president-elect Barack Obama.

Assad's unilateral announcement does not mean the plan has been formally withdrawn – that would require a full Arab summit. But his statement illustrates just how difficult it will be to rescue hopes for progress towards a wider regional peace once the immediate Gaza crisis is over.

The Syrian demand to cut links with Israel was directed primarily at Egypt and Jordan, both of which have had peace treaties and full diplomatic ties with Israel since 1979 and 1994 respectively.

Qatar and Mauritania have since announced they are suspending ties. More