In Kuwait, some see window for an opening to Israel

Persian Gulf states allowed opening of Israeli trade offices in the last 10 years.

kuwait 88 (photo credit: )
kuwait 88
(photo credit: )
Israel's withdrawal from Gaza produced cracks, tiny and almost invisible, in Kuwait's collective enmity for the Jewish state, a deep animosity passed down the Arab generations here as if in the country's collective mother's milk. There is precedent for better ties between Jews and Arabs in the Persian Gulf, where US allies Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have, over the last 10 years, allowed Israel to open trade offices and government officials have been seen with Israelis in once-taboo public meetings. And the Israeli departure from Gaza has encouraged a very few liberal voices in Kuwait. "Israel's pullout [from Gaza]... belies the old rumor Arabs have believed that Israel is in continuous expansion," Nabil al-Fadhl, columnist for Al-Watan daily, told The Associated Press. "If Palestinians themselves, Egypt and Jordan have normalized ties, why shouldn't we - the countries that are far away - do the same?" Fouad al-Hashem , also an Al-Watan columnist, said he sees no harm in "an embassy with a flag that tells the west we are peace-loving people," but he believes the real test will be in "popular normalization," a much tougher nut to crack. "The people should be left to their own opinions," he said. Hassan al-Issa, a Kuwaiti lawyer and political analyst, told AP: "A sort of window for dialogue should be opened [with Israel] in order to push forward the peace process," while insisting that the Palestinian leadership be consulted about any contacts. Israel's withdrawal "should be returned in kind... Something that eases the situation, not opening the door all the way." He said Israel still must withdraw from all the West Bank and Jerusalem, which would become the capital of a Palestinian state, if it wanted broad Arab recognition. And therein lies the potential for a withering on the vine of any potential for a larger Kuwaiti or other Arab opening to the Israelis, who show no willingness so far to remove all Jewish settlements from the West Bank or to surrender control over any part of Jerusalem. Further roiling Muslim-Israeli relations was the call by Iran's ultraconservative new president on Wednesday for Israeli to be wiped off the map. The speech did not find much resonance in the Arab world, but it served to return to the forefront of many minds in the Middle East essential conflict between the Jewish state and Muslims. After the 1991 US-led Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from a seven-month Iraqi occupation, the government ended its boycott of companies that do business with Israel, citing "considerations of national interest." The goods and services of many of those companies were needed for postwar reconstruction. Independent economist Jassem al-Saadoun said his country was willing to "return the favor" to the United States by cooperating on Iraq, allowing the small nation to be the launching pad for the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. It has also sent $500 million to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. Kuwait was not, however, ready to pay the price of dealing with Israel, he said. "Kuwait is an open market and it doesn't need goods from Israel." What's more, he added, the Jewish state does not consume enough oil to make it a significant market for Kuwaiti crude. Israel, however, issued a tentative welcome to the possibility of better ties. In a recent interview with Al-Siyassah daily, Israel's Vice Premier Shimon Peres, said "when the time comes," Kuwait with its free economy could become a "suitable partner for businessmen and companies in Israel." He praised Kuwait for its "positive" role in Palestinian affairs saying the Gulf state does not encourage "terrorism and incitement." But public opinion has a long way to go in accepting warmer relations. Abdul-Majid Shaaban, a 65-year-old gold shop owner, said he would never buy Israeli goods even if a Palestinian state were established and Kuwait normalized relations. "As a Muslim, I cannot accept that," said Shaaban, who is retired from the government's office that coordinates the boycott of Israel. Kuwaiti Islamists and westernized liberals - archenemies on most issues - largely agree on shunning the Jewish state. Five years ago, they even joined in setting up The People's Congress for Resisting Normalization Between the Israeli Enemy and the Gulf. Ameliorating Kuwaitis historic anger with Israel and its displacement of Palestinians was the decision of the late Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat to back Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait. Many Palestinians who lived in Kuwait were convicted of collaborating with Saddam and Kuwaitis felt betrayed by their Arab brethren. The government, nevertheless, did not waver in is political and financial support for the Palestinian cause. And with the passage of time much of the anger toward the Palestinians dissipated. Kuwait has even restored ties with the post-Arafat leadership. Al-Fadhl, the Kuwaiti columnist, now argues the government policy is out of date. Arabs, through making peace with Israel, have won back more seized land than through all the wars and boycotts, he said. "It is high time we learned from our mistakes."