GENEVA — U.S. and Israeli officials are concerned that Saudi Arabia may be breaking the promise it made when it entered the World Trade Organization last year by hosting a meeting next week on the Arab economic boycott of Israel.
“I think this is a bit too much,” said Itzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to the WTO, noting it has been only three months since Saudi Arabia was admitted to the organization on terms that require it to treat Israel like any other WTO member.
The promise was that the Saudis would not seek an exemption for Israel from WTO requirements to treat all members equally. The exemption would have preserved its participation, along with other Arab states, in a boycott of Israel.
In Washington, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office said officials from the Department of Commerce and other agencies have been in contact with the Saudis over the issue.
Shaun Donnelly, the assistant U.S. trade representative for Europe and the Middle East, will raise the matter during a visit to Saudi Arabia next week, she said.
Liaison officers from regional offices responsible for coordinating the boycott of Israel are to meet in Jidda from March 13 to 15, according to a schedule posted on the official Web site of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference.
Salem el-Honi, high commissioner of the OIC office that runs the boycott, was quoted yesterday in the Jerusalem Post saying representatives of all 57 countries would attend the meeting “and we will discuss coordination among the various offices to strengthen the boycott.”
The boycott, imposed by the Arab League in 1945, seeks to isolate Israel by barring trade with the Jewish state and in some cases companies that do business in Israel. The OIC monitors compliance through its own Israeli Boycott Office, whose officers are to meet next week.
Adherence to the boycott has softened over the years even among Arab states as countries like Egypt and Jordan established diplomatic and economic links with Israel. Participation in the boycott by the United Arab Emirates has emerged as an issue during the debate in Washington over a deal giving a Dubai company control over six American seaports.
Acting under U.S. pressure, Saudi Arabia chose not to seek an exemption from WTO rules for its relations with Israel when it joined the organization. Mr. Levanon said in an interview yesterday that he considered the hosting of next week’s OIC meeting a violation of that commitment.
WTO chief Pascal Lamy and Eirik Glenne, chairman of the WTO’s ruling general council, “should call to the attention of Saudi Arabia that it must not violate the rules of the WTO,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what they do.”
As a new WTO member, Saudi Arabia “should be more cautious” about its actions toward another WTO member, Mr. Levanon added.
WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said the organization had not received a formal complaint about the Jidda meeting to date and noted that Saudi Arabia’s accession to the trade organization “was agreed by consensus.”
However, the issue is of concern in Washington, where U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman was asked during a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee in February about Saudi Arabia’s observance of the boycott.
“It’s a big concern of the United States, of course, because we worked with Saudi Arabia on the issue of their WTO accession,” Mr. Portman replied.
“Saudi Arabia did not, when they joined the WTO, invoke non-application [of WTO rules] with regard to Israel or anybody else. So as far as we’re concerned, Saudi Arabia is required under the WTO to provide that treatment to all the members of the WTO that they have agreed to,” he said.
Members of the Saudi delegation to the WTO could not be reached for comment yesterday.
An international trade lawyer, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said that under WTO rules it was up to the Israelis to open legal proceedings against the Saudis if they feel they have a grievance.
Some trade diplomats noted that Israel and Saudi Arabia, while political adversaries, conduct de facto trade through third countries in the region.
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