JPost article center of US ports battle

The Bush administration is still standing behind the deal.

dubai ports hearing (photo credit: AP)
dubai ports hearing
(photo credit: AP)
The involvement of Dubai Ports World, the company chosen to manage six US seaports, in the Arab boycott against Israel has drawn sharp criticism in Congress and may hamper the attempts of the United Arab Emirates to improve its trade ties with the US. The Jerusalem Post's exclusive report on the Dubai firm's adherence to the Arab boycott is now playing a significant role in the political dispute over the port contract and is seen as one of the major factors - coupled with a critical US Coast Guard report on the Dubai company - which may lead to cancellation of the deal. The Bush administration is still standing behind the deal, though it had agreed to a 45-day period of review before finalizing the contract. But the discovery of the fact that the Dubai firm accepts the Arab boycott rules not only provides ammunition to those opposed to the ports deal, it also might complicate ongoing discussions between the US and the UAE on a free-trade agreement. Congress is working on formulating an agreement which would allow the UAE a special free-trade status, but in return would compel the country to stop boycotting Israel and companies who trade with Israel. Similar agreements were reached in the past year with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The new information on the Dubai company has led lawmakers to demand that the UAE disassociate itself from the Arab boycott as a condition for moving forward with the free-trade talks. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who chairs the House subcommittee on Middle East, is trying to gain support for a call to stop all trade talks with the UAE because of the boycott. "We're working on the letters to the US Treasury and Commerce departments... calling for an immediate halt to any further action on a US-UAE Free Trade Agreement, until UAE repeals all aspects of the Arab League boycott and until the port issue involving DP World is fully investigated," Alex Cruz, a spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen, said. The news about the Dubai firm's adherence to the boycott took center stage in a Tuesday hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce which was holding a hearing on the port contract. Quoting the Post report, California Democrat Barbara Boxer grilled Edward Bilkey, its chief operating officer. "Isn't your policy to respect the boycott on Israel?" Boxer asked, and Bilkey replied: "DP World is not involved in state-to-state." Yet later, under pressure from committee members, Bilkey admitted that the government of Dubai, which owns DP, does follow the boycott. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) stressed the importance of having the fact that the Dubai company works under the boycott rules, made public and taken into consideration when deciding on the deal, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) added that the boycott "is inconsistent with everything we believe in as Americans." Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) defended the deal, but said in his closing remarks that he deplores Dubai's adherence to the boycott. Following these remarks, Bilkey asked the committee to note that his company does conduct business with Israeli firms. "We serve everyone. The largest Israeli shipping company is one of our largest customers," Bilkey said, referring to DP's joint work with Zim. This explanation did not seem to satisfy Stevens, who asked Bilkey if there were any Jews on his board. "No, sir," Bilkey said and Stevens replied, "I didn't expect any." US Jewish organizations also called on the government to cancel the deal with Dubai. In a letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow, the Anti-Defamation League wrote: "The administration's leadership has been critical in securing commitments from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to cease their boycott of Israel. Dubai must take similar public action to even be considered for a deal with the US government." American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesman Josh Block said in a statement that "it is clearly against American law for companies doing business in the United States to participate in the Arab boycott of Israel." Meanwhile, the government of Dubai has reiterated its refusal to allow Israeli citizens to enter the country. "We don't give a permit for Israeli passport holders to enter the country," Muhammad Ali al-Mohari of the entry permits section of the Interior Ministry told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview. "It's a rule." He added, though, that the holder of a foreign passport bearing stamps which indicated that he or she had once visited Israel would not encounter any problems entering the country. Dubai's refusal to allow Israelis to set foot on its soil also features prominently on a government-run Web site. Michael Freund contributed to this report.