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US Fails to Bridge Arab-Israel Split in Mideast Business Summit

Peace Through Trade

Oded Ben Haim is lonely.

Israel's official trade representative to the Arab nation of Oman was once the toast of the capital, Muscat. Now he spends his days poring over trade papers, joking with his largely local staff, and wondering what might have been.

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"The honeymoon is over," one Israeli official says, noting that visits to Mr. Ben Haim's whitewashed Arabian-villa-style office by Oman's powerful men of commerce have been reduced to a trickle. Meanwhile, Israeli trade delegations are having trouble securing visas to this sultanate.

As the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has deteriorated - with terrorist bombs tearing through crowded civilian streets in Israel and Israeli settlements continuing to be built despite Palestinian objections - the bitter air of mutual distrust and recrimination has found its way to the traditionally moderate Persian Gulf state of Oman.

This should worry Washington, Western diplomats in Muscat say, because Oman, more than any other Persian Gulf Arab state, has embraced the peace process. Washington is banking on Oman to attend the Washington-backed regional economic summit to be held in Doha, Qatar, on Sunday. Oman, which will be one of the few Arab states, along with Jordan and Yemen to attend, will send a low-level delegation.

This year's summit is the fourth in an annual series of American-backed gatherings intended to create a web of business ties that would promote regional stability and cooperation in the Middle East. But it is mired in controversy due to the faltering peace process and the subsequent boycott by several Arab states, including Egypt and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia. The Arab League has also said it will not take part.

Washington has been engaging in a diplomatic arm-twisting offensive, hoping to persuade reluctant Arab leaders to attend.

"I think Washington is wasting its time," says Othman Al-Omeir, editor in chief of the influential Saudi-owned daily Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, which is published in London and read throughout the Arab world. "What is the point of having such a summit when all trust has been shattered?"

"I simply won't do business with Israel right now," one prominent Muscat businessman says. "First of all, it would not make economic sense given the instability; and secondly, it would be morally wrong."

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Government officials here concur. "We did everything we could to support the [peace] process," says Sayyid Haitham, the secretary-general of Oman's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the royal family.

"But," he notes, "there are limits. With the election of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, agreements reached with the Palestinians in Oslo have not been implemented," he says.

Oman is a good indicator of the feeling in the Arab world about the peace process, Western diplomats in Muscat say. "After all," one says, "If moderate Oman is unhappy, you can imagine the state of other governments."

The annual economic summits, begun in Morocco in 1994, are a centerpiece of Washington's Middle East policy.

The US has been "exerting a great deal of pressure on us," an Omani diplomat in Washington says. "It is obvious that they are concerned."

Qatar is proceeding with the meeting, trying to quell dissent by calling it "a conference, not a summit," and lowering the event to a ministerial gathering rather than a meeting of heads of state.

The question of attendance may be moot if Arab businessmen refuse to engage Israeli counterparts. "The attitude among many Arab businessmen," Mr. Al-Omeir says, is "who needs Israel anyway? What do they have that we can't get from South Korea, Taiwan, Europe, or America?"

So it appears Ben Haim, the Israeli official, will have even more time on his hands.

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