An Interview with Dr. Simcha Bahiri

How did you spend your time in Amman?

I arrived in Amman with Israelis but was not part of the Israeli delegation. In addition to the main sessions that were widely publicized, I attended the session with Palestinian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Nabil Sha'ath, and the then-Israeli Minister of Economics and Planning, Yossi Beilin. The session dealt with development in the region and was highlighted by Dr. Sha'ath complaining about closures and Yossi Beilin trying to explain and justify the closure policy.

What were the main accomplishments of the summit?

The three-day summit advanced cooperation between the various parties interested in the development of the region. It promoted cooperation with Europe, and, to a lesser degree, cooperation in the region. The conference helped extend and widen investment in the Middle East and facilitated a deeper involvement of the World Bank. It strengthened attempts to inte¬grate the region and establish joint projects, and helped strengthen inter¬regional and intra-regional cooperation. Jordan was clearly the party that benefitted the most. There were other Arab countries represented, most importantly the delegation from Qatar and Oman. Libya, Syria and Algeria did not attend; but while Lebanon was officially absent, many Lebanese businesspeople attended in an unofficial capacity.

Were there any disappointing aspects to the summit?

Projects worth billions of dollars were presented and discussed but few of these projects will ever take off. For example, there was a lot of talk about the gas pipeline with Qatar, but this issue has been talked about for more than a year now. Things move very slowly, especially when Israelis are involved. Every country put forward proposals. The Palestinians had US$6 billion of proposals, including a pipeline to transport water from the West Bank to Gaza.

Were there any regional projects which didn't include Israel?

The basic projects not including Israelis consisted of some overall invest¬ments like Volkswagen setting up an assembly plant in Jordan.

What was the mood like at the summit?

The atmosphere in relations between the Egyptians and Jordanians was not very comfortable. The Egyptian Foreign Minister thought that Jordan was going too fast in normalizing relations with Israel. The Jordanians replied by claiming it was Egypt who started it 17 years ago.
There was a lot of fighting behind the scenes and some of it came out in the open. It was clear that there was competition about who gets what part of the pie. The Egyptians got the headquarters of the new proposed regional development bank, which was a subject of con¬tention. This bank was opposed by the French and German govern¬ments as well as by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Morocco; the Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians were for it. Morocco will be the headquarters for the planning of future conferences but they will not be held there; the next one will be in Egypt. Jordan got the Regional Economic Development and Investment Group (REDWIG) which at the moment seems to include Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan. Morocco and Tunisia are to join later. REDWIG includes chambers of commerce, tourism, trade and industry.
During the Casablanca Summit many thought that the Israelis overplayed their cards. Did the attempt to downplay the Israeli role in Amman work? While Israel was trying not to be dominating (only 100 Israelis attended), I think it is trying to get a free ride without paying a full price for peace. Many tentative agreements are dependent on further progress in the peace process.

What do you think is needed to turn the region around economically?

Conferences don't turn regions around, but they help create a framework where businesspeople meet and establish contacts to further relations.

Were there any workshops you found valuable?

There was a session regarding the relationship between the private and public sectors. The conference organizers and the World Bank wanted to push the private sector, as did many of the Arabs. The Europeans, on the other hand, talked about the importance of the public sector on matters such as infrastructure. Nabil Sha'ath says the Palestinians have no problem in this area because everything will be private, but I doubt it.
I don't think the Palestinians can develop without a public sector, and I could cite the Taiwanese and South Korean models, where the state pro¬vided much of the infrastructure and investment needed to help the econ¬omy take off. Nevertheless, this conference was dominated by private sector people, whose side clearly won the debate with the public sector advocates.

How did the Palestinian delegation do at the summit?

Palestinians always do well at conferences of this sort. They were very prominent; everyone was conscious of them. There was always a Palestinian on the panel. People are interested in promoting Palestinian development projects like industrial zones, and there was a lot of talk about damage caused by closures. There was a good feeling towards Palestinians, but I don't know if this feeling translates into cash. At the end of the day, it was the Jordanians who dominated this conference.