A regional economic conference in Casablanca, Morocco, concluded Tuesday, with Morocco’s King Hassan II and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres declaring the Arab boycott of Israel effectively over.
Hassan closed the historic three-day conference, which brought together Arab and Israeli leaders as well as business executives from around the world, by issuing a 14-point “Casablanca Declaration.”
The declaration called for a partnership between government and business to develop the economies of the Middle East and North Africa.
Despite Israeli efforts, the formation of a regional development bank was not announced, after Saudi Arabia, the United States and several European nations expressed reservations about the plan.
Instead, a staff of experts will study the proposal and submit recommendations in six months’ time.
While there were few concrete developments that emerged from the conference, Israeli delegates were pleased to find themselves on an equal footing with their Arab counterparts, who have largely shunned all relations with the Jewish state since its founding in 1948.
Delegates at the conference made a general call to remove obstacles that hinder economic growth in the region. They also called for open borders between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous zones of the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave.
Morocco’s King specifically urged Israel to lift the closure on the territories, put into effect after the terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv bus last week that left 23 dead. Israel had already announced it would life the closure by midweek.
Members of the conference set up steering committee that will meet regularly. A second conference was scheduled to convene in Amman, Jordan in April.
Peres said the conference, which gave Israeli and Arab business executives their first opportunity to make contact in an open forum, was proof that the Arab boycott of Israel was over.
“The boycott has died, even if it has not been formally buried,” Peres told Israel Television. “the negative union for the boycott is being replaced by a positive one for economic cooperation.”
The conference was also a channel for developments on the diplomatic front.
On the final day of the summit, Israel opened a liaison office in the Moroccan city of Rabat. Morocco is expected to open a similar office soon in Tel Aviv.
Peres and his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Ben Yahia, announced that the two countries would soon open liaison offices in each other’s countries.
Both Morocco and Tunisia established lower-level ties with Israel earlier this year.
Peres also indicated that the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Qatar and Oman may be next in line to establish ties with Israel.
While the 2,000 delegates attending the conference discussed regional development projects and cooperative efforts, Israeli business executives pointed out that no major deals were signed.
They also said that on more than one occasion Arab delegates, especially the Saudis shunned open contacts with the Israelis.
Some of the negative Arab reaction stemmed from the verbal sparring between Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in their remarks at the opening ceremony Sunday.
After Arafat declared that Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state, Rabin declared that Jerusalem was, it and will remain the capital of Israel.
Jerusalem entered the picture again on the final day of the conference, when Jordan’s Prince Hassan said that Jordan would eventually transfer responsibility for the Muslim holy sites in eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians – only after the final status of the city if determined
Hassan later told an Israel Radio reporter that Jordan would not completely relinquish its ties to the holy sites.
He said he hoped that after Israel and the Palestinians resolve the final status of Jerusalem in negotiations set to begin in 1996, a council encompassing all groups who assert a claim over the Muslim holy sites could be formed to administer them.
“We hope we can evolve an Islamic council which is truly representative of Islam,” Hassan said.