Behind the Headlines: Regional Economic Summit Ends with Statement Critical of Israel

A regional economic summit began and ended this week with statements critical of Israel.

But in between the opening and closing sessions of the fourth annual Middle East-North Africa economic conference, business representatives, including some from Arab countries boycotting the event, got down to deal-making.

“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.

While most of the business deals struck at the three-day conference in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar benefited the host country, Israeli officials cited at least two positive developments:

An agreement between Israel and Jordan to create an industrial zone that will export products duty-free to the United States.

Israel and Qatar may consider reviving a gas deal, according to Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Natan Sharansky, who led the Israeli delegation to the conference.

The potential deal to export natural gas from Qatar to Israel indicated that the emirate might be interested in repairing ties with the Jewish state.

Only six Arab states — Jordan, Tunisia, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen and Mauritania – - sent official delegations to the conference.

Many Arab states had called for a boycott of the meeting, citing the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The stalled peace process was on the minds of delegates at Tuesday’s final session.

The summit closed with a declaration for all Middle East peace accords to be based on the principle of land for peace and called for progress on all outstanding peace process issues.

The closing statement also sharply criticized restrictions imposed on the Palestinians and called for development of the Palestinian economy.

Unlike the three previous conferences, American delegates did not lobby to have the controversial clauses removed from the closing declaration.

The first Middle East-North Africa economic conference convened in Morocco three years ago amid high hopes for the recently launched peace process – - 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.

The emir of Qatar formally opened the conference in the Qatari capital of Doha with a speech critical of Israel.

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.

Al-Thani’s remarks demonstrated the serious deterioration in Israel’s relations with Qatar, which last year had taken a lead among Arab nations in the Persian Gulf in developing relations with the Jewish state.

A delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited Qatar for three days in March 1996 at the invitation of the emir.

A month later, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, making the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the emirate, signed an agreement to open trade offices in each other’s countries.

But several months after the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, amid growing disenchantment in the Arab world with the Likud government’s peace process policies, Qatar postponed indefinitely the opening of the trade office in Tel Aviv.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who attended the opening session of the Doha conference, 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.

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 in the Jordanian city of Irbid.

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.

Unlike previous years, the economic conference did not choose a location for its next annual meeting. The location is to be announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

About 1,300 business representatives attended. Israel’s delegation of 65 was relatively small, compared to the missions of more than 100 members which took part in previous gatherings.

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