The Bottom Line / Blair, Resist the Temptation

I will start with the bottom line: Don't be enticed into expanding the regional peace conference, which is already sputtering, to include economic issues.

Dear Tony Blair,

I will start with the bottom line: Don't be enticed into expanding the regional peace conference, which is already sputtering, to include economic issues.

Such a step would drain critical energy from our decision makers, who, anyway, are not too enthusiastic about going to Washington in November.

Let them focus on achieving a political solution, and after that happens, economic arrangements will follow of their own.

This week Israeli economic chiefs presented you with a tempting proposal: Head an economic conference to meet alongside the Washington conference. This could help the Palestinian economy, they said, and told you how they met twice this week with their Palestinian and Turkish counterparts to advance economic cooperation.

What they didn't tell you is that compared to similar meetings, the ones this week were marginal and insignificant in terms of who the participants were and the results, because it is impossible to accelerate economic ties while the cabinet is discussing a broad ground attack in the Gaza Strip, and while Qassam rockets are whistling overhead and also frightening the decision makers in Ramallah.

It is very flattering to head a regional economic conference, but let us take a look at what happened at previous economic meets. Experience shows that if you do call such a conference, it will be filled with statements about cooperation, which will all remain just there, on the level of slogans. It will be a conference that fails the results test.

In the mid-1990s, we were all excited about flying to economic conferences in Casablanca, Cairo, Amman and Doha. We arrived believing in Shimon Peres' vision of a new Middle East, and with a book full of projects that almost turned the vision into a reality. Now it seems the vision and book of projects were ahead of their time, probably by at least a generation.

The Americans have been pushing the economic narrative since well before you took on your new role, and they have failed. Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, explained this all 17 years ago. Economic process, he said, cannot come before the diplomatic process; the opposite holds true. He was not just being theoretical.

Mubarak was worried by the extremists in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, extremists who refuse to listen to any talk of economic cooperation with Israel. They want to talk only about Israel's destruction. These extremists have not disappeared; in fact, they have gained in strength.

You do not need to dust off the psychology books in your library. The second intifada broke out as the Palestinian economy was growing its closest to the dream of transforming into the "Singapore of the Middle East." Palestinian economic growth was taking giant steps forward of almost 10 percent per year, unemployment dropped sharply and the new Palestine Stock Exchange bubbled with activity.

And then Yassir Arafat decided that he had not caused enough trouble for a while, and everything that had been developed at a snail's pace collapsed, including the Palestinian economy.

The problems of transportation, payments and insurance between the Israeli and Palestinian economies can be solved here at the political and military levels. To solve that we do not need to fly dozens of businessmen to Washington. They will only distract attention from the main issue: a political agreement.

If necessary, it is possible to add a framework for an economic agreement to the talks, as one exists from previous conferences and talks. But it is certainly of secondary importance.