Global business leaders take on challenge of Mideast peace

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan -- Rich and powerful business leaders bought their can-do attitude this weekend to the Middle East. But the entrepreneurs fared no better than the politicians in making a dent in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

No breakthroughs emerged from the World Economic Forum, which on Monday ended its first annual session held in the Middle East.

A much anticipated peacemakers' meeting during the three-day summit produced only another plea to Israelis and Palestinians to work harder for peace.

The closest thing to a major financial deal was a preliminary agreement between Jordan and Israel to expand economic cooperation.

"We tackled difficult challenges," Jordan's King Abdullah II said in his closing speech at this Dead Sea resort. "There are no answers yet, I'm afraid. But together, we have started the process, we have started the journey."

The World Economic Forum usually holds such meetings gathering political and business leaders in the Swiss resort of Davos but moved it to Jordan this time in efforts to confront the region's crises.

Despite the different setting, leaders tried to maintain the "spirit of Davos" -- the belief that business leaders can make a difference if they bring their energy, expertise and resources to bear on social and political problems.

But Jose Maria Figueres, senior managing director of the World Economic Forum, acknowledged in an interview that little can be done without first bringing basic order to areas like the Palestinian territories or Iraq, two places that received much of the attention at "Davos on the Dead Sea."

Still, he said, efforts by businesses can start before politicians resolve the stickiest issues.

"We should be able to move on both agendas at the same time, because they are mutually re-enforcing," he said.

Yasser Abbas, son of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and a businessman, said he came to the Dead Sea meeting hoping to do business, and did make contact with Arab, American and European companies that might one day be his partners. But a political solution must come first, he said.

"People are scared to come" to invest in Palestinian businesses, he told The Associated Press. "I understand their worries; we are scared ourselves."

Some 1,100 business, social and political leaders did come from around the world, creating an opportunity Arabs could not afford to miss, Rateb Shallah, head of the Syrian and Damascus chambers of commerce, said in an interview.

Shallah even envisioned a role for Syria in the U.S.-Middle East free trade area that U.S. officials seek to set up within a decade. The idea of Israel also playing an active role under such an agreement didn't faze Shallah, whose country is seen as an Arab hard-liner on the Arab-Israeli question and has strained relations with the United States.

As the summit wrapped up, Secretary of State Colin Powell emphasized the importance of sticking to the U.S.-backed Mideast peace plan known as the "road map" that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005.

Powell met on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum with the other sponsors of the road map -- Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- on Sunday. They emerged with a call on Israelis and Palestinians to end 33 months of fighting.

Israeli Industry Minister Ehud Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor known as a hard-liner on the Palestinian issue, traveled across the Dead Sea for the chance to meet with Arabs who might have otherwise snubbed him.

Sunday, he saw the crown prince of Bahrain, with whom Israel has no ties, and the foreign minister of Qatar, whose ties with Israel have been frozen since the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence erupted in September, 2000.

Bahrain rebuffed an offer to set up an Israeli trade office in its capital and Olmert said no progress was made on getting Qatar to improve ties. But he said efforts were continuing and other contacts were made -- though he refused to be specific.

"I shouldn't embarrass anyone in particular," Olmert said.

Olmert and his Jordanian counterpart, Salah-Eddine al-Bashir, signed an agreement Monday adding two more industrial zones to the half dozen set up since the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty to foster joint ventures.

Olmert and al-Bashir also met during the summit with Palestinian Minister of Trade and Industry Maher al-Masri to discuss Israeli security measures that keep Palestinian workers from reaching jobs and Palestinian goods from reaching markets, but made no headway on that issue.

'No one fools himself into believing that in one or two days you can solve problems," Olmert said. "But you create momentum."

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