Qatar calls on Arabs to talk to Israel after pullout

NEW YORK (AP) — Arab nations should make a gesture towards Israel after its withdrawal from Gaza by talking with their Middle East neighbour to chart a future for the region, Qatar’s foreign minister said.
Praising the Israeli pullout after 37 years of occupation in Gaza, Sheikh Hamad Ben Jassim Ben Jabor Al Thani said Arab nations should respond.

“I salute this step by Israel,” he said in a speech Wednesday at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “But it is very important that there be a clear vision after this step.”

“Arab countries must take a step towards Israel through an international meeting or a meeting between Arab states and Israel and the co-sponsors of peace, particularly the United States, in an attempt to come up with a clear vision to the period after Gaza,” he said in his comments.

Qatar is a close US ally in the Gulf. The energy-rich country is home to the US Central Command’s forward operations in the Middle East. It has had low-level contacts with Israel in the past.

Arabs have proposed a peace plan calling for full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want to establish a state, as well as Syria’s Golan Heights. In return, Israel will have normal relations and peace with the Arab world.

There is concern among Arabs that Israel will use the withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of Jewish settlements there to consolidate its hold on the West Bank.

The Gaza withdrawal prompted countries such as Pakistan, one of the Muslim world’s largest countries, to consider establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Sheikh Hamad said the Gaza pullout could bring normalisation of relations with Israel to prominence, but he acknowledged the issue remains “controversial” in the Arab and the Islamic worlds.

Still, there is an opportunity for the region after the Gaza withdrawal. Sheikh Hamad said both Arabs and Israel have obligations for a post-Gaza Middle East. The United States also has to bring the region together after the withdrawal.

“Let them talk together,” said Sheikh Hamad, who is in New York to attend the UN General Assembly session. “If we have to talk to them [the Israelis] it doesn’t mean we accept all what they say, but they are part of the United Nations.” He said Arab hardliners were pursuing the “wrong policy” by refusing to talk to Israel.

At the United Nations on Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom urged Arab and Islamic states to open contacts with Israel if they want to help the cause of peace in the Middle East. He maintained that Israel was making progress on that front but did not divulge the details.

“I think all the Arab and Muslim countries should know that if they would like to help the Palestinians they should have good contacts with both sides,” he told reporters. “Otherwise, it will be impossible for them to help the Palestinians.” He warned that the failure of Palestinian authorities to take control of Gaza could jeopardise the post-Gaza peace process.

In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli army’s withdrawal, thousands of joyous Gazans flooded into empty Jewish settlements and set abandoned synagogues on fire, illustrating the weakness of Palestinian security forces and raising concerns about their ability to control growing chaos in Gaza.

“I would like to believe it’s only the first days. But if it lasts for a longer time, I can’t see any progress in the future,” he warned.

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