Bahrain's foreign minister said in an interview published Wednesday that Middle East nations should form a regional organization that includes Israel and Iran to try to resolve their disputes.
It was a rare call for Arab countries to create a broad grouping alongside Israel, with which most of them do not have diplomatic relations, and Persian Iran, whose growing influence on the region is a cause of concern for them.
"The organization needs to include everyone, beyond differences of religion and race. The Middle East is the cradle of monotheistic religions... They should sit together in one organization," Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa told the Arab daily Al-Hayat.
Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab nations that have peace deals with Israel and have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Other Arab nations have said they won't establish ties with Israel until it signs peace deals with the Palestinians and Syria.
Al Khalifa said in the interview that a regional organization should be formed "even if we don't recognize each other."
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly a day earlier, Sheik Khaled called for such a Mideast organization to include countries without exception.
Asked by Al-Hayat if it would include Israel, he replied, "With Israel, Turkey, Iran and Arab countries. Let them all sit together in one group... This is the only path to solve our problems."
"Why don't we all sit together even if we have differences and even if we don't recognize each other? Why not become one organization to overcome this difficult phase?" the paper quoted him as saying.
Few Arab governments are likely to accept a permanent regional forum with Israel. When the first Israeli-Palestinian peace deals were reached in the 1990s, Arab countries quickly quashed proposals that were floated that Israel be allowed to join the Arab League. Iran, which rejects the peace process with Israel, is even less likely to join a regional block with it.
Many Arab governments, dominated by Sunni Muslims, also view mainly Shi'ite and Persian Iran with suspicion, fearing it is trying to extend its influence in the Gulf and the rest of the region through its allies in Syria and Lebanon.
Bahrain - a pro-Western island nation with Sunni rulers and a Shi'ite majority - is a close U.S. ally and hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Earlier this year, it appointed the Arab world's first Jewish ambassador as its envoy to Washington.
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