The World Economic Forum, in moving its deliberations from Davos, Switzerland, to the Middle East, could have selected a more seductively named location than the Dead Sea. However, by meeting in Jordan the annual conclave is sending a message that Middle East peace is an international priority, a message that the region’s newspapers had no trouble picking up on.
The summit began a day after Israel assassinated a Hamas militant, and its impact on the WEF was immediate. Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star chose, like many papers, to quote a statement by the Quartet sponsoring the Palestinian-Israeli “road map” (the United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union), in which it expressed “its deep concern over Israeli military actions that result in the killing of innocent Palestinian and other civilians. … Such actions do not enhance security and undermine trust and prospects for cooperation.” The foursome also demanded that the Palestinians “halt immediately the activities of individuals and groups planning and conducting attacks on Israelis.” Beirut’s respected Al-Nahar found the Quartet’s censure of Israel significant enough to highlight in a headline: “American and International Criticism of the Assassinations; Israel Threatens All Hamas Leaders.” The paper’s focus was motivated by Secretary of State Colin Powell’s saying, of the assassination, “I regret we had an incident that could be an impediment to progress.” The Quartet also set up a committee to coordinate and oversee implementation of the road map. This closer supervision led Israeli daily Ha’aretz to observe that the Bush administration, which had avoided too close an involvement in Palestinian-Israeli talks, was now micromanaging the process. The paper also added that more Americans are getting involved: “Powell’s visit will be followed next week by the arrival in the region of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Special American envoy John Wolf, who was sent to oversee the implementation of the road map … has already begun actively participating in the security talks.”
Several papers mentioned a meeting that occurred on the margins of the Dead Sea summit between the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The London-based Al-Hayat reported that the meeting—the first public encounter between Bahraini and Israeli representatives—lasted 20 minutes and was “unofficial.” It said Bahrain’s government-controlled news agency had reported that Shalom proposed that Israel open a representative office in Bahrain and that officials from the two countries meet. Prince Salman rebuffed him, saying this would have to await a regional settlement. The paper also revealed a difference of priorities between the United States and Europe on Syria and Lebanon. The European Union would like to launch Syrian and Lebanese road maps as soon as possible, but Powell was noncommittal on dates, arguing that the Palestinian-Israeli talks came first.
Iraq was also high on the WEF agenda, and one of the speakers at the conference was the U.S. civilian representative in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer. According to Beirut’s Al-Safir daily, which is critical of the United States, the Red Sea summit “formalized the American occupation of Iraq.” The paper’s attitude was made clear in an irate headline: “The World Economic Forum in Jordan is … Political; an Arab Welcome for Bremer and Shalom!” In his speech, Bremer focused on the need to revive Iraq’s economy, and he announced that a political council would be set up in July to assist in running the country. Bremer suggested a few days ago that Saddam Hussein’s capture would help Iraq emerge from its predicament. The United States might have gone one better by killing him. Britain’s Observer reported Sunday that the United States is conducting DNA tests on remains “retrieved from a convoy of vehicles struck last week by US forces following ‘firm’ information that the former Iraqi leader and members of his family were travelling in the Western Desert near Syria.” The paper cited “military sources” expressing optimism that Saddam and at least one of his two sons, Odai and Qusai, were liquidated in the Hellfire missile attack. The operation was ordered after the United States allegedly intercepted satellite conversations involving the former Iraqi leader or his sons.
A front-page photograph in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat showed what Bremer is really up against as he contends with the diverse, often contradictory, currents in Iraqi society. The photo, taken in Baghdad, shows an old man walking past several pictures of former Iraqi President Abdel Karim Qassem and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Qassem led Iraq between 1958 and 1963, and was considered a dangerous left-wing radical by the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. He was also hated by the Baath Party (as a young man, Saddam tried to kill Qassem) and was robustly secular. That’s why demonstrating nostalgia for Qassem today is akin to expressing dislike for the Baath, opposition to the United States, and hostility against the idea of an Islamist state in Iraq, particularly one that is Shiite-led. It is unclear whether Qassem or Khomeini would wince more at seeing their pictures side-by-side. The old man, however, seems to be taking it all in stride.