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Amos Eiran knows a thing or two about gas. For years the former director general of the Prime Minister's Office and advisor to Yitzhak Rabin has served on the board of directors of Delek Drilling, following the area of natural gas from that vantage point. Last week, when the flotilla affair was spoiling the gas party in Israel, Eiran was given an opportunity to see for himself what the neighbors are doing with their gas.

While the economic siege of Gaza was turning into the political siege of Israel, Eiran was attending an economic conference in Doha. He saw how natural gas can be transformed into economic energy and a political engine. Eiran, former president of the University of Haifa, entered Qatar on an Israeli passport. He walked around the Arab city on his own, he says, without a trace of fear.

The conference, initiated by Prof. Steven Spiegel of the University of California, Los Angeles, was called "Enriching the Middle East Economic Future; Moving Past Financial Crisis, Building a Vision for Tomorrow."

Among the statesmen, economists and businessmen who attended the forum were representatives from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. In their conversations in the corridors, after competing against the important Western guests in condemning Israel's raid on the flotilla and blockade against the Gaza Strip they turned to practical matters. This talk was no less sad.

Problem childof the Middle East

Eiran jotted down remarks directed toward him, while reporting a general impression of considerable openness: "How is it that for so many years you have been ignoring the Arab peace initiative? You are acting like the problem child of the Middle East."

Eiran was impressed by the Qataris' knowledge of Israeli politics. Someone said that Qatar hopes that Kadima will return to power and asked why MK Shaul Mofaz is harassing party chairwoman MK Tzipi Livni.

"We are eager for economic and technological cooperation with Israel," a senior Qatari official said. "As soon as you reach understandings with the Palestinians we can work wonders together."

In the meantime, Qatar's busy Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is transforming the Al Jazeera television network, his "baby," into the vanguard of the struggle against the siege of Gaza. The network's director and news chief are Palestinian. In the wake of Operation Cast Lead Qatar closed Israel's trade office in Doha.

Eiran says that Qatar's enormous revenues from its gas deposits - the emirate is the world's largest gas producer and exporter, and its per capita GDP is double that of the United States - enables it to place bets across the board. Qatar has close military ties with the United States and has also signed a defense pact with Iran. It calls for the establishment of a Palestinians state and is also casting flirtatious glances at Hamas.

"Everyone wants to be near them, on account of their economic clout and business initiative," continues Eren, citing Qatar's investments in the German automotive giant Volkswagen, the French nuclear reactor maker Areva, Barclays Bank and London's Harrods department store. The list of world leaders who have visited Doha rivals in length Qatar's international shopping list.

Eiran is far from the romanticism of the "new Middle East" of Israeli President Shimon Peres. He also took notes on his conversation with one of Kuwait's four female members of parliament (all of whom have PhDs ), which for him exemplified the complexity of the game being played in the neighborhood.

She spoke with concern about the widening gap between rich and poor and the absence of democracy, which are giving rise to extremism and terror, adding frankly, "I pray that my children will not become terrorists."

Rabin's tennis partner returned from Qatar with the grim conclusion that instead of playing on center court Israel is wasting precious time and energy squabbling over one more house in a West Bank settlement and one more truck entering the Gaza Strip.

In the wake of the crisis surrounding the Gaza blockade politicians have begun toying with the idea of intensifying Israel's unilateral disengagement from the territory. They propose a total closure of the border crossings to Israel. The government would inform the world that it is severing the land link between Israel and the Strip and will make sure that the Palestinians are not bringing in weapons and ammunition by sea.

Gaza isn't disengaging

This is definitely a possible option but it is worth remembering that the interim agreement signed by Rabin's government in September 1995 explicitly states: "The two sides view the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a single territorial unit, the integrity and status of which will be preserved during the interim period."

The agreement, which earned the blessing of president Bill Clinton, also states: "Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations."

The formal and total detachment of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank is a violation of the agreement, which allows for Israeli control of Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim (as part of the division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C ). It will be interesting to see what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will say about this.

While Israel's High Court of Justice has ruled that the laws of occupation do not apply to the Gaza Strip, it has also ruled that Israel still has obligations toward its inhabitants. These obligations, noted the court in response to a petition from the human rights organization Gisha, derives in part from the warfare between Israel and Gazan militants, Israel's continuing control of Gaza's borders and Gaza's heavy dependence on Israeli services as a result of the many years of total Israeli control of the territory.