Summit to Discuss Peace, Regional Cooperation and Investment
CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) _ Government and business leaders from 80 countries gather Sunday in Casablanca, hoping to boost Middle East peace - and land lucrative contracts in the process.
The Middle East-North Africa Economic Summit is the largest effort yet by Israelis and Arabs to strengthen regional stability through investment and development.
The three-day conference begins late Sunday after a meeting between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Rabin and Arafat were expected to discuss ways to speed up Palestinian autonomy and to put forth new proposals to ease the strife between their peoples. The hurriedly scheduled meeting was brokered by President Clinton, who visited both leaders on his trip to the Middle East this week.
The two leaders also plan to sign an agreement that would allow Palestinian surveillance of two border crossings: the Allenby bridge between Jordan and the West Bank, and the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian officers will take up positions at the crossings as early as Monday.
The summit hosted by Moroccan King Hassan II is expected to draw more than 1,200 participants, including some 80 Israeli businessmen.
Israel is proposing more than 100 joint projects worth $25 billion, about half of them for water systems, Israel radio reported Saturday.
The creation of a regional development bank could also be announced at the conference.
Previously many Arab nations refused to do business with Israel, insisting that the Jewish state first withdraw from the territories it seized in the 1967 Middle East War.
In September the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Gulf state monarchies, lifted its boycott of firms doing business with Israel. But the Arab League, with 21 members, has continued to insist on Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
The summit is sponsored by the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
All countries from the Middle East and North Africa are taking part except Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Some Syrian and Lebanese businessmen are attending in a private capacity.
U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller are participating, as well as representatives of leading banks and private financial institutions.
Morocco has played a behind-the-scenes role in the Middle East peace talks and recently established commercial liaison offices with Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres will open an Israeli interests office in the capital of Rabat on Tuesday. Peres, who has been in Morocco since Friday, also will sit in on the Rabin-Arafat meeting.
Rabin is expected to demand that Arafat exercise more control over Palestinian militants to prevent attacks such as the bombing of a bus in Tel Aviv that killed 22 people two weeks ago.
Arafat, who was to arrive Saturday evening after a stopover in Egypt, is likely to seek accelerated autonomy for Palestinians in health, fiscal, social and tourism affairs.
He also wants Israel to allow Gaza residents to resume their jobs in Israel, whose border has been closed since the bombing Oct. 19.