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Jordan Concerned About Getting Its Share of Economic Peace Dividend

Jordan is worried about getting its share of the peace dividend and of being economically overwhelmed by Israel, according to a Jordanian government official.

Rima Khalaf, Jordan’s minister of industry and trade, addressing a recent symposium sponsored by the America-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that “we can transform the Middle East to a future that will offer stability to all the people in the area.”

But for this to happen, she warned, “we should give each country the same potential to benefit from peace.”

In her cautious tone, Khalaf staked out a middle ground at the symposium, which focused on economic opportunities in the new Middle East.

Most optimistic were Israeli and American Jewish business executives, speaking of the potential for Israeli trade throughout the Arab world. Most pessimistic were two prominent Palestinian American businessmen, who reminded the audience that “the occupation continues.”

The symposium took place even before Israel and Jordan agreed on terms of the peace treaty signed Wednesday.

The treaty commits the two countries to conclude negotiations on economic aspects of their new relationship within six months.

In these negotiations, Jordan is asking for economic barriers between the two countries to be eliminated very slowly. The lengthy transition period it is seeking, by one account, is 15 years.

If Jordan and Israel do not undertake a “gradual and well-planned opening of economies to each other,” said Khalaf, they will unleash economic forces that would polarize the two economies, to the detriment of her nation and ultimately of peace.

Israel wants barriers dropped far sooner.

Representing Israel at the symposium last month was Gad Ya’acobi, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

ISRAEL NOT SEEKING ECONOMIC DOMINATION

He repeated Israeli reassurances that it is not seeking economic domination over its neighboring states.

“We know that there is a connection between the economic and human situation and the chances for reconciliation and peace, which is our principal goal,” he said.

In a subsequent interview, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres expressed his view that “an open trade will bring the Jordanian economy closer to the Israeli one.”

He said the relationship between the United States and Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement provides an argument for open economies.

“By Mexico joining the U.S. in a free trade zone, America did not become poorer like people feared, but Mexico became wealthy,” said Peres.

David Stone, an American Jewish lawyer who has long represented Israeli companies and has now begun representing Arab firms seeking to do business with Israel, told the symposium that Jordan is indeed committed to trade with Israel.

“I perceive a real will, both on the governmental and businessman level, to proceed quickly,” he said.

While Jordanians are “taken aback by the speed of developments,” he said that he has personal knowledge of a number of transactions happening right now.

During a September visit to Amman, Stone met with senior officials of the Jordan Investment Corp., a government company involved in economic development and privatization.

“They gave me a list of 10 specific projects they were seeking tenders for,” he said.

Stone said that throughout the Arab world, including countries still far from signing any agreement with the Jewish state, there are business ventures quietly taking place.

Still, it remains unclear whether there is really a political will on the part of Arab governments to encourage business with the Israelis, said Stone. “There is a genuine fear of Israeli economic domination.”

And destructive rhetoric continues.

Stone said he had been talking very seriously with a European company that was considering an investment in the Gaza Strip that would have created 3,000 jobs.

In the middle of negotiations, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat made his speech promising to lead a jihad for Jerusalem.

JORDAN ANXIOUS FOR BUSINESS WITH ISRAEL

The Europeans grew frightened, and the venture collapsed.

Stone said that Egypt, like Jordan, is anxious to do business with Israel.

“For the first 17 years after Camp David, Egypt had a very formal, publicized policy of freezing economic relations with Israel. That has turned around 180 degrees. The Egyptian government is anxious, for a lot of reasons, in pushing people to do business with Israel,” he said.

On the other hand, the Gulf states — with the exception of Oman and Bahrain — are not anxious to do business with Israel. But on an unofficial level, he said, people are eager.

“I’m personally involved in several Saudi-Israeli deals, where they meet face to face,” said Stone.

Most problematic of all, said Stone, is investing in the areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

“There is no legal infrastructure, no way of doing business,” he said.

Fuad Sahouri, president of the Palestinian-American Chamber of Commerce, however, urged American investors to consider the West Bank and Gaza.

“These are the times of opportunities,” he said.

In the end, he predicted, “NAFTA is going to be duplicated in the Middle East.”

But a decidedly gloomier view came from Zahi Khouri, head of the Palestinian Development and Investment Co.

“You have to come down to ground level,” he said, warning against “too much euphoria.

“It is still an occupied area. There are still roadblocks. You cannot move your goods freely from Ramallah (in the West Bank) to Jerusalem or Amman.”

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