JERUSALEM, Nov. 6 (JTA) – Of all the countries in the Middle East, Israel is alone in its eagerness to attend the upcoming regional economic summit in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. In a sign of how much the faltering peace process has dampened the prospects for expanding regional ties, only Israeli political and business leaders are showing any enthusiasm for the conference. Some Arab countries have already announced that they are boycotting the annual Middle Eastern and North African economic summit, while others have hesitated, citing the lack of progress in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. Those countries that have agreed to attend did so under pressure from the United States, which views attendance as an expression of support for the peace process. Paradoxically, the meeting, slated to be held Nov. 16-18 in the Qatari capital of Doha, is unlikely to offer Israelis impressive business opportunities. Israelis have long understood that their real markets are far from the Middle Eastern bazaars. But for them, the fourth annual conference offers them a chance to obtain what they perhaps want most of all: regional acceptance. Until a few weeks ago, there were numerous questions surrounding the conference, not the least of which was whether it would be held on its scheduled date or postponed until some progress was achieved in Israeli-Palestinian relations, which traditionally weigh heavily in the political decisions of the neighboring Arab states. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, citing progress in this week’s Israeli-Palestinian talks in Washington, announced Thursday that she will meet next week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. The conference is expected to be held on schedule – thanks largely to American pressures – and some 2,000 delegates are expected to attend. Organizers have planned for the conference to address numerous regional economic issues, including gas and energy, economic reforms, computerization and transportation. Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Iraq are boycotting the conference – as they did the three previous meetings. The issue of Arab participation was high on the agenda of a recent meeting of the 22 foreign ministers in the Arab League. The ministers eventually decided to allow each country to decide on its own whether to attend the conference. Some Arab countries haggled over conditions for their participation. For example, the European Union’s peace envoy, Miguel Angel Moratinos, was told by the Tunisians that they would fly to Qatar only if Israel gave permission for Arafat’s plane to take off from an as-yet unopened airport in the Gaza Strip. The airport has been one of the issues in recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but with security at the forefront of Israeli concerns, no agreement has yet been reached on its operations. Eitan Ben-Tsur, the director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, responded to the Tunisian request by saying that Israel was not planning to offer favors in exchange for any state’s participation. Arafat said last week there would be no delegation from the Palestinian Authority attending the conference. He blamed Israel’s policies for his decision. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani recently sent some 92 invitations to the conference – mostly to foreign ministers, but also to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and officials of the European Union and other international institutions. It appears that the only foreign ministers planning to attend are Israel’s David Levy and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who has repeatedly lobbied in support of the conference. Unlike its Arab neighbors, Israel is planning to send numerous top political figures. In addition to Levy, Minister of Trade and Industry Natan Sharansky is also expected to attend – as may National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon. Qatar also invited Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and there is little doubt that both will be there. Israeli officials, keenly aware that their presence at the meeting has been controversial for some Arab states, have attempted to defuse the issue. The conference does not revolve around Israel, they explain, adding that they are but one of many states sending representatives to a meeting whose goal, after all, is to improve the regional economy. But the Israeli presence remains a sore spot for the other participants. Jordan is expected to send six ministers, all with economic portfolios, but not the foreign minister. Other participating Arab states have lowered the rank of their representatives in order to stress the economic character of the conference – and downplay its political importance. The United Arab Emirates said this week that it would not participate if there were no tangible results emerging from the peace talks. The general lack of enthusiasm for the Doha meeting stands in stark contrast to the first such conference. When Israeli and Arab leaders convened in Casablanca, Morocco, three years ago, an air of euphoria prevailed amid high hopes for the recently launched peace process. There were similar expectations at the 1995 conference in Amman, Jordan, which focused on creating regional economic institutions. Among the political leaders attending was Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin – just weeks before he was assassinated. The atmosphere began to change by the time last year’s conference was convened in Cairo. Setbacks in the peace process and Arab concerns about Israel’s recently elected Likud government prompted organizers to bill it in economic, not political terms. The Cairo conference proved successful in terms of the Egyptian economy. Numerous multimillion-dollar contracts for Egyptian factories were signed as a result of the conference. This year, the Qataris hope to repeat that success in terms of their own economy. Rich in natural resources, Qatar wants to develop as a vibrant business and investment center. The country’s officials recently introduced new laws to facilitate private sector investments. They are not ruling out Israeli investments, but they are most interested in promoting business with the United States, Germany and Japan.
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