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Contrary to its solemn undertakings, Saudi Arabia has not dropped its anti-Israel trade boycott, as reported in a Jerusalem Post news article on Monday. This travesty has continued for nearly a year and a half. Worse yet, it is no darkly concealed secret. The Saudi deception is quite overt, yet no government had seen fit to take the world's largest oil exporter to task for fear of offending it.
The Saudis are being given license to speak with forked tongues. They promised the US to discontinue their embargo against Israel, a precondition for entry to the World Trade Organization, whose raison d'etre is the promotion of free commerce. Prohibitions and discriminatory practices are in direct contradict to everything for which the WTO stands.
Riyadh's co-option to the WTO swiftly followed its formal renunciation of its practiced antithesis to liberal trade: In November 2005, it promised to end the boycott; a month later, it was admitted to the WTO. But its commitment was mere lip-service. Saudi policy did not change. As detailed in the Post's report, the Saudis still forbid importation of any merchandise manufactured in Israel or even containing Israeli-produced components. Any goods suspected of Israeli connection are confiscated at the Saudi port of entry, as per stringent ongoing Arab League stipulations.
A Saudi official did note that, in the past, products made by firms that had "a relation" with Israel were also barred, and that this was no longer the case. This, it should not need stressing, hardly reflects the open trade policies at the heart of the WTO.
Yet the Saudis' open duplicity - "Of course" Israel goods are not permitted, a Saudi official was quoted as saying - goes largely unchallenged. At most there are murmurs of displeasure from Washington. Other WTO members prefer to turn a blind eye to the unabashed breach of their organization's regulations.
Last month, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab spoke of "conflicting signals from Saudi officials," but the truth is that their bad faith from the outset is clear-cut. Her undertaking that the "administration will continue to monitor the situation" rings distinctly hollow in view of the fact that nothing here is ambiguous. Saudi double-dealing is incontrovertible. Had a WTO member less endowed with oil reserves allowed itself such two-faced conduct in its dealings with a country other than Israel, one suspects, it would long ago have been censured by fellow WTO member states.
Middle Eastern potentates have often combined honeyed blandishments meant for international consumption with actions that make a mockery of such sentiments. But the Saudi disingenuity now comes as Riyadh presents itself as the new would-be patron of regional peace. It claims to want to serve as the driving force in forging a viable solution to the decades-old conflict between the Arab world and Israel.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has responded constructively to a Saudi-led diplomatic effort even though it has often been presented as an ultimatum, and even though it features basic components that, if left as stated, threaten Israel's very existence. How incongruous that the nation at the vanguard of this diplomatic effort is insistently failing to honor its own commitment, internationally mandated, to the bare-minimum of interaction with Israel.
The notorious old Arab boycott of the Jewish state - which, incidentally, has failed to prevent or even retard Israel's economic success - is fundamentally inconsistent with aspirations to coexistence. Surely, if the Saudis wish to be taken seriously as advocates of progress, they must prove their sincerity on an issue that is most patently under their own control. Failure to do so can only reinforce those Israeli skeptics who warn that the Saudis are merely out to further yesteryear's inimical Arab agenda via new tactics.
Israel is invariably called upon by the international community to demonstrate goodwill to even the most overtly hostile neighbors via risky confidence-building measures; often, Israel feels the need to do so. But why not apply a fraction of such pressure to the Arab world's most prosperous and powerful regime, one that can truly alter wider Arab attitudes to Israel? And why has that regime not seen fit itself to honor its own commitments?
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