- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Bush administration has a unique opportunity to promote peace in the Middle East and further the war against terrorism. That opportunity is based not on any intelligence finding or any summit meeting of leaders, but rather in the seemingly mundane negotiations over international trade.

Saudi Arabia is seeking U.S. support for its application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Bush administration can be true to its rhetoric about Middle East peace and condition support for the Saudi bid on steps to improve the Middle East and demand Saudi antiterror action.

President Bush has been clear he regards free trade in the Middle East as a way to underpin regional peace and stability. Last year, he announced an ambitious 10-year plan to create an integrated Middle East Free Trade Area (FTA), modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The main obstacle is most Arab states refuse to trade with Israel, one of but a few Middle Eastern countries with which the U.S. already has a free trade agreement (FTA).

Arab states also enforce an egregious secondary boycott according to which they will not trade with any companies — including American ones — that have any dealings with Israel. For the Arab states, a “Middle East” free trade area is really a Middle East-minus-Israel trade zone.

Although Bush administration officials have publicly suggested the Arab boycott is incompatible with their vision for a Middle East FTA, they have done little about it. Instead, the U.S. signed an FTA with Bahrain in May despite continued Bahraini participation in the anti-Israel boycott.

U.S. trade negotiators are soon expected to approve Saudi Arabia’s application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), a prerequisite to the Saudis signing an FTA with the U.S. Again, Saudi Arabia will be rewarded by the U.S. despite taking part in the boycott of Israel and insufficient domestic action against terrorism.

The Saudis will use the same tried-and-tested ways to circumvent U.S. objections to the anti-Israel boycott they use when asked for more vigorous counterterrorism: false promises. Like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia will probably indicate it intends to halt enforcement of the secondary boycott and then promptly break that promise. In the mid-1990s, when the WTO was founded, the Saudis told WTO members their anti-Israel boycott was over. In fact, as the Commerce Department showed, Saudi Arabia continued applying the secondary boycott against American firms.

Instead of being hoodwinked again, the United States should stand firm and demand elimination of the boycott and clear counterterrorism action. After all, the U.S. is leading the antiterror war. The U.S. has made peace in the Middle East its priority and taken up the central diplomatic role in bringing this about. The boycott is a clear impediment to peace. It prevents emergence of the kind of commercial ties between Arabs and Israelis that might break down hateful stereotypes and foster interdependence instead of antagonism.

Like racial segregation, economic segregation makes it easier for people to ignore each other’s humanity. And the boycott is in many ways a thinly veiled cover for anti-Semitism. The Arab boycott bans any commercial dealings whatsoever with “Zionist sympathizers,” a term often banning dealing with Jews.

Riyadh covets the prestige of joining the WTO, the trade club of advanced economies. Saudi Arabia needs WTO membership to diversify its economy away from dependence upon oil.

By contrast, the U.S. can gain little economically from Saudi accession, but the Saudis cannot enter the WTO without U.S. support. U.S. trade negotiators should only support Saudi Arabian WTO membership when Riyadh publicly renounces the boycott, stops participating in Arab League boycott planning meetings and takes concrete counterterrorism measures.

Such a U.S. stance will force Saudi Arabia to decide if it really wants Middle East peace and deserves the much abused label “moderate state.” In recent years, Saudi Arabia has tried to score diplomatic points by portraying itself as a possible mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with Crown Prince Abdullah proclaiming a peace plan in Beirut in 2002.

Yet the same country operates a policy that daily denies the Jewish state’s right to exist. After all, the boycott began immediately after creation of the State of Israel in 1948, not after the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Israel’s capture of the West Bank and Gaza. Continuing the boycott more than 50 years after the foundation of Israel shows an institutionalized opposition to existence of a Jewish state.

If the Bush administration takes this opportunity to promote Middle East free trade, the administration can show it is pursuing a negotiations-based, reward-oriented foreign policy sure to find bipartisan support in Congress.

Indeed, Sen. John Kerry in a recent interview spoke of using WTO accession as a carrot with Saudi Arabia, and a group of mostly Democratic senators and congressmen recently wrote a letter to the U.S. trade representative, urging him to block the Saudi’s WTO bid until they completely abandon the boycott of Israel. Supporters of the administration Middle East policies, as well as those who say it relies too much on force, would both be astonished if the U.S. passes up such an opportunity.

Eugene Kontorovich is a professor at George Mason University School of Law, in Arlington, Va., and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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