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The controversy over a deal to hand over the control of six major US ports to a government-owned Dubai firm has centered around security concerns. President George Bush has assured worried members of Congress from both parties that these concerns were thoroughly vetted, and that all security-related functions would remain in the hands of the federal government.
On Tuesday, however, The Jerusalem Post revealed another potential obstacle to the deal: the firm, Dubai Ports World (DPW), is an active participant in the illegal boycott of Israel. Under extensive questioning at a Senate hearing on Tuesday, a DPW official admitted that the government of the United Arab Emirates owns DPW and does indeed enforce the boycott of Israel.
In 1977, the US made compliance by American companies with the Arab boycott - actually any boycott of any US ally - a crime. The Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance, an arm of the US Commerce Department, has fined three American companies in just the last year for violations related to boycott requests from the UAE.
A spokesperson for the chair of a House International Relations Mideast subcommittee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, told the Post that she is "working on a letter to the US Treasury and Commerce Departments calling for an immediate halt to any further action on a US-UAE free trade agreement, until the UAE repeals all aspects of the Arab League boycott and until the port issue involving DP World is fully investigated."
The Congress is right to broaden the matter to include the UAE's participation in the boycott of Israel. In fact, the question of how the US makes business deals regarding sensitive facilities should arguably include even broader considerations, such as the Bush Administration's bold quest for freedom and democracy in the Middle East.
As William Bennett, a well-known Republican supporter of Bush, put it: "The president has asked 'what kind of signal does it send throughout the world if it's okay for a British company to manage the ports, but not a company that has â€¦ been cleared for security purposes from the Arab world?'
"The better question," Bennett suggests, is 'What kind of a signal are we sending by making a public ally of a country that refuses democracy and does not recognize the existence of its most democratic neighbor because it is considered to be inhabited by members of the wrong religion? Who are the real xenophobes here?'" Fair point.
The port deal would seem to be far out of sync with the new spirit of American foreign policy that Bush has wrought. It is Bush, after all, who has continually urged the world to connect the dots between Arab freedom, facing down Muslim radicalism and American security. Yet now it is Bush who is insisting that the UAE, which show's up in Freedom House's ratings below Iran and formally bars Israelis from entering the country, is an American ally, and even one that can be compared with Great Britain.
This won't wash. The Dubai deal may or may not violate US anti-boycott laws, but treating a government that boycotts Israel as if nothing is wrong is pre-9/11 thinking. It fails to recognize that the Arab economic boycott of Israel - or more correctly of Jews, since it began even before the Israel was founded - is an unacceptable form of deligitimization and demonization of the Jewish state.
Some claim that the boycott has become a dead letter, or "all bark and no bite," as an Israeli who combats the boycott put it. Israeli goods, stripped of their labels, now make their way into Arab states, and the secondary boycott of companies that trade with Israel has collapsed.
But the Arab boycott and, more generally, the refusal of nations that do not even share a border with Israel to normalize relations cannot be viewed as protesting a particular Israeli policy. Israel not only favors a Palestinian state, but is arguably more eager to create one than the Palestinian leadership, be it Fatah or Hamas. In this context, the boycott can only be seen as a refusal to accept Israel's existence. Such radical rejectionism by any state of another should not be tolerated, much less ignored.