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Business representatives flock to conference despite boycott

JERUSALEM, Nov. 16 (JTA) – The fourth annual Middle East-North Africa economic conference took place this week in Qatar amid sharp criticism of Israel for the stalled peace process. In an address formally opening the three-day meeting in the capital of Doha, the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,
said Sunday that Israel’s failure to implement peace agreements with the Palestinians was “endangering” the region and making cooperation impossible. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who attended the opening session, did not target Israel specifically. But she warned that the Middle East peace process was in danger because leaders of the region “have failed to take the actions required to realize the possibilities of peace.” Albright arrived in Doha after meeting separately in Europe over the weekend with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. She warned both leaders that “time is running out” to move the peace process forward. Several Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have boycotted the conference to protest what they describe as Israel’s efforts to block the peace process. Only six Arab states – Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen and Mauritania – accepted Qatar’s invitation to send political delegations to the conference. Organizers said that up to 2,000 business representatives were attending the meeting, some from countries that were officially boycotting the event. This was also pointed out by members of the Israeli delegation, which was led by Industry and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky. “I can identify a lot of Saudi businessmen here. So officially they might not be here, but they still are,” Haim Cohen, spokesman for the Israeli delegation, told Israel Radio. Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy announced last week that he would not attend the conference. He said that since the conference was dealing with economic issues, it was preferable that the Israeli delegation be headed by the economic minister. The Palestinian Authority, blaming Israel’s refusal to advance the peace process, reiterated over the weekend its earlier decision not to attend the conference. When the first Middle East-North Africa economic conference was convened in Morocco three years ago, there were high hopes for the recently launched peace process, and Israel was rewarded with a high- profile presence at the meeting. While there was little tangible progress toward creating regional economic institutions at that meeting – and at the two successive meetings in Amman, Jordan and Cairo – there was considerably less acrimony directed toward Israel than at this week’s session. While several Arab states said this week that regional cooperation with Israel was impossible at this time, the first business deal announced at the Qatar conference on Sunday was an agreement between Israel and Jordan to create an industrial zone. American officials granted a special incentive to the project by making all products created in the new zone eligible for duty-free entry to the United States. Albright and U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley witnessed the signing of the agreement by Sharansky and his Jordanian counterpart, Hani Al-Mulqi. The agreement calls for 10 industrial plants to be set up in a zone near Irbid, in northern Jordan. The plants will produce textiles, electronic components, jewelry and plastics.