- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 11, 2000

HAMMAMET, Tunisia President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali said in an interview that all Arab nations except one now favor lifting economic sanctions against Iraq.

The exception is Kuwait, where Iraqi forces were driven out by a U.S.-led 29-nation coalition in 1991.

In an exclusive interview conducted at his weekend retreat near Tunis, Mr. Ben Ali said: "Embargoes do not work. They are counterproductive and simply perpetuate dictators in power… . You are hurting the people, not the regime, and Saddam Hussein can keep blaming their inhuman plight on the U.S."

President Ben Ali said "every Iraqi family has lost someone to war or deprivation as a result of the embargo. Iraq used to be the most advanced country in the Arab world. Now the country is finished in its present state. And Saddam continues to dream of revenge. This has been going on for 10 years. So prudence and foresight would seem to dictate an end to sanctions that the regime circumvents anyway."

Mr. Ben Ali was preparing for his state visit to the United States, beginning July 13, when he received a 20-minute call from President Clinton asking him to postpone his trip until September because he wanted to give the Camp David talks between Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ehud Barak "my undivided attention."

The Tunisian president, in a 90-minute interview conducted in French, said Mr. Arafat had called to say he was not going to Camp David.

"He said on the phone that first Israel had to implement the accords already reached," Mr. Ben Ali explained. "I said to Arafat, 'never say never.' If something breaks down, it must not be perceived as Arafat's fault."

Mr. Arafat is now planning to join Mr. Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for a summit meeting starting today at Camp David.

Mr. Ben Ali went on to say "the two sides are condemned to live together. Israel will have to accept a Palestinian administrative capital in East Jerusalem. As for the return of Palestinian refugees, clearly the principle has to be accepted of open borders and freedom of movement.

"The two sides must raise their sights and look at their futures in the context of the ever-faster pace of technological change. And here Israel's tremendous advances can play the role of locomotive for the region."

He warned that if some Israelis believe they might be better off waiting for Mr. Arafat's political demise, "that would be playing with fire … this new Palestinian leader could well be a less moderate figure."

Mr. Ben Ali said nations trying to find counterweights to American power should not waste their resources, as "that kind of balance is dead. There is no way Russia can replace the U.S.S.R. as a global power. India and China … are a long way from being part of any global balance of power. The EU [European Union] is probably the closest, but it remains to be seen whether the Europeans are prepared to spend what it takes to be a global power capable of assuming the role of an emergency response number for the whole world."

In Mr. Ben Ali's view, people should not worry whether globalization and Americanization are one and the same.

"We cannot escape it," he said. "Don't fight it, but use it to leverage yourself into the global economy. Globalization is more than McDonald's, baseball caps and Hollywood movies. It is a constant spur to do more and better. We have to prepare for the New World Order. Our Tunisian primary schools are on the Internet… . I myself spend three hours a night on the Internet. I download documents from universities, major libraries in Europe and America and send them to my ministers, asking whether they're on to this or that. When I am looking for someone worthy for a high-ranking government job, I check my own database for the best qualified."

Mr. Ben Ali believes the widening gap between rich and poor and between computer literate and computer illiterate is "the overarching problem that dominates all others from ethnic conflict to fundamentalist extremism."

America's impressive technological lead makes it "the locomotive for the rest of the world," he said. Nevertheless, he said, "it cannot be a winner-take-all kind of world" because this would be a recipe for the resurrection of recently buried totalitarian dogma."

He reiterated his call for a World Solidarity Fund aimed at bridging the still-widening gap "that has become a universal phenomenon that affects primarily developing nations. The kind of solidarity, both between nations and peoples, is a humanitarian duty and obligation. Failure to tackle global poverty with a universal plan of action can only lead to more wars."

Mr. Ben Ali returned several times to the menace of Islamist extremists that he said can only be circumscribed with social and economic reforms, "which is what we have done with our totally open society. Youth everywhere is demanding transparency. The Internet is eroding all taboos."

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