'Bush should challenge Saudis on Israel boycott'

As a member of the WTO, Saudi Arabia is prohibited from engaging in discriminatory trade practices, such as embargoes or boycotts, against fellow member states.

After the US House of Representatives voted recently to block aid to Saudi Arabia, a Republican congressman is calling on the Bush Administration to challenge Riyadh over its failure to drop the anti-Israel trade boycott. "It's becoming increasingly clear that the Saudis have not been following through with their assurances either to the United States or the World Trade Organization," New Jersey Rep. Mike Ferguson, a member of the House's influential Subcommittee on Commerce and Trade, told The Jerusalem Post shortly after the vote. "This wasn't supposed to be a gradual process, taking weeks or months. It was supposed to be immediate and comprehensive," he said. "The Bush Administration should challenge the Saudis and seek verification." Saudi Arabia joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December, after pledging to Washington to end its embargo of Israel. The Bush Administration had conditioned the desert kingdom's entry into the WTO on such a move. As a member of the WTO, Saudi Arabia is prohibited from engaging in discriminatory trade practices, such as embargoes or boycotts, against fellow member states. Nevertheless, as first reported in the Post, Saudi officials have continued to bar entry to Israeli-made goods. In March, the Saudis played host to a major international conference aimed at strengthening the anti-Israel trade embargo, and they sent an official delegation to Damascus last month to take part in a meeting of the Arab League's boycott office. Saudi customs officials contacted by the Post have said that Israeli-made products are prohibited from entering the country and, at a luncheon held in Washington last week, the Saudi Ambassador to the US acknowledged that the boycott of Israel remains in force. In the wake of the Post reports, members of Congress have raised increasingly pointed questions about the manner in which the US Trade Representative's Office (USTR) monitors compliance by Arab countries with their promises to drop the boycott. Last week, Rep. Robert Wexler of New Jersey wrote to USTR Susan Schwab to seek clarification of her stance on Riyadh's continued enforcement of the anti-Israel trade embargo. Stephen J. Norton, spokesman for the US Trade Representative, insisted via e-mail that Washington has raised the boycott issue with Riyadh on numerous occasions. "We have consistently and forcefully engaged the Government of Saudi Arabia regarding our concerns about reports that Saudi Arabia may be continuing to enforce the boycott," Norton said. "We continue to press Saudi Arabia on the commitment that it made to all members in joining the WTO," which, he pointed out, includes the need "to eliminate restrictions on imports from WTO members." "The Saudi Government," Norton concluded, "has assured us that it understands and intends to honor its WTO commitments." But for Congressman Ferguson, "assurances" from the Saudi government may no longer be enough. At some point," Ferguson insisted, "the United States simply cannot accept the Saudis' assurances that the boycott has been lifted, especially in light of evidence that it's continuing." "The fact that their continued reassurances to our own diplomats prove to be all talk and no action is an affront to the United States and every other country in the WTO," he said. "Without verification that the boycott of Israel has ended," Ferguson warned, "sentiment will continue to grow in Congress that Saudi Arabia is not a trustworthy partner in the global war on terrorism and the global economy." By a vote of 312 to 97 earlier this month, the US House of Representatives decided to cut off foreign aid to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom's abuse of human rights, continued funding of terror and ongoing enforcement of the anti-Israel boycott were among several reasons cited by those voting in favor of the move.