- The Washington Times - Friday, May 9, 2003

President Bush is set to announce today a plan for a Middle East free-trade zone, according to a senior administration official.During a commencement speech at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Mr. Bush will call for the Arab nations of the Middle East, as well as Israel, to form a free-trade zone within a decade that would foster “peace and security” throughout the region, the official said.One of the keys to the initiative’s success would be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To that end, Mr. Bush announced yesterday that he will send Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the region tonight.”I’m very optimistic,” Mr. Bush told reporters in the Oval Office as he met with Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. “We’re going to make progress.”The president also will announce today that he is dispatching Mr. Powell and U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick to the World Economic Forum next month in Jordan, where they will huddle with Middle East leaders to discuss “economic growth and education and political freedom,” the official told reporters on the condition of anonymity.The source shrugged off questions from The Washington Times about whether the Muslim rulers of the Middle East, many of whom run tyrannies or theocracies, would see any new push for democracy as a threat, especially in the wake of Iraq’s liberation.”It’s just the opposite,” said the official, adding that some Middle Eastern nations are undertaking democratic reforms of their own accord. “There can be a real moment, an opportunity for the entire world to seize, particularly in the Middle East, to build a lasting and stable peace.”The official described Mr. Bush as being energized by “the idea that by extending liberty and freedom to parts of the world that have not seen it in many, many years, that it can provide new opportunities to bring peace and security to other parts of that troubled region.”But, the source added, the president “realizes this is a difficult task and is going to require leadership from a lot of different parties.”Mr. Bush will tie his free-trade proposal to the countries undertaking necessary reforms, such as fighting corruption and terrorism, protecting property rights, and developing good business practices.The president believes that people of the Arab nations “deserve to be able to participate in the economic prosperity that has been experienced in many other parts in the world,” the administration official said.The United States has free-trade agreements with Israel and Jordan and wants to conclude a trade pact with Morocco by the end of the year.Mr. Bush would work to advance the goal of a regional trade area through a series of steps that would include helping reforming countries become members of the World Trade Organization and negotiating bilateral investment and trade treaties, the official said.The proposal was likely to be welcomed in the region.Washington has been under pressure for years from Saudi Arabia to help Riyadh gain membership in the WTO. Egypt has been lobbying the United States for a free-trade pact in part as a reward for its help in the Iraq war.At the same time, the United States will be attempting to lay the groundwork for an overall Middle East peace agreement according to a recently released “road map” calling for a Palestinian state by 2005.Mr. Powell’s visit this weekend aims to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to take some initial steps. This includes cessation of violence by the Palestinians and easing of curbs by Israel on the freedom of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Reuters news agency that a regional free-trade pact could help, but it would not be enough to get Arabs and Israelis to make peace.”Free-trade agreements could make sense,” he said. “But I don’t think in and of themselves they will be the catalyst for regional Middle East peace. There are some very thorny issues there.”• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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