`Beginning of a Beautiful ...'

On the shores of North Africa, Arabs and Jews forge new ties from Maghreb to Mesopotamia

IN the shadow of Islam's tallest shrine, Israel stretched the chord that has bound it to the Western economic sphere for decades and reached out to the Arab world.

The Hassan II Mosque is a sentinel structure in Casablanca, perching like a ship on the beach, its bows lapped by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

Casablanca has been continuously built and dismantled since the ancient city of Anfa thrived on the same site until the 15th century. Named after a whitewashed house that once served as a landmark for passing ships, it seemed a fitting venue for a new start between Arabs and Jews.

Mingling on an unprecedented scale, Palestinians, Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia interacted with Israel's leading industrialists at the first Middle East and North Africa Economic Conference. Eight Israeli Cabinet ministers, led by Foreign Minister and Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres, participated freely in committee sessions on everything from water management to the Palestinian economy.

``While we were forced to live in isolation from our neighbors, we came to rely on the United States and Europe as trading partners,'' an Israeli official says. ``We developed a business style, which was hard and aggressive. But if we want to do business with the Middle East, we will have to play by the rules of the Middle East.''

``We hope that the Peace of the Braves will create a new Middle East based on coexistence, interaction, and coherence,'' said Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat in his opening remarks.

The clash of business cultures was evident in the hard-sell approach adopted at a lunch given by the large Israeli delegation for Arab and international businessmen.

The slick multimedia presentation and sales talk contrasted sharply with the more relaxed style of the Arab world. But the Israelis, somewhat overwhelmed by the lavish Moroccan hospitality and their acceptance by the Arab world, wanted to deal.

The feeling seemed to be mutual. Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan announced Nov. 1 that Jordan will hand over control of Muslim holy shrines in East Jerusalem to Palestinians once they reach an agreement with Israel on the final status of the city.

``Even for the seasoned diplomats among us, it was something quite new,'' said Israeli Economic and Planning Ministry Director-General Alon Liel. ``Being together with so many representatives from the Arab world helped us, too, to understand what the changes that are taking place really mean.''

King Hassan II put his royal palace at the disposal of about 1,000 businessmen and officials who came from more than 50 countries to see the birth of Mr. Peres's dream of a Middle East and North African trading bloc stretching from Morocco to Mesopotamia as it did in the 7th century BC.

Few hard deals were struck at the conference, organized by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum and New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. But the ambience set the right tone for a new partnership.

``The Arab-Israeli conflict is coming to an end,'' said US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. ``The Middle East is undergoing a remarkable transformation.''

Turkey's Prime Minister Tansu Ciller offered her support. ``We share the same culture and religion as the Islamic world.... We feel we can be the bridge for peace and economic welfare in the Middle East.''

Mr. Christopher had the last word. ``If I may borrow the famous Humphrey Bogart line: The conference could be the beginning of a beautiful thing,'' he said, referring to the movie that immortalized Casablanca.

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