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May 16, 2003



It is Shalom's first meeting with an Arab FM since his appointment
Qatar ready to boost ties with Israel


With much of the Arab world still under the shock of war in Iraq, the Gulf state of Qatar has sprung a surprise initiative, offering to broaden relations with Israel in a bid to boost propects for Middle East peace.
"Relations between Qatar and Israel are currently limited to a trade mission," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani told Al-Jazeera satellite television Thursday after his Israeli counterpart, Silvan Shalom, in Paris a day earlier.

"If progress is made in the peace process, Qatar will not be against seriously considering the possibility of raising (the level of) relations," Sheikh Hamad said from the French capital.

It was Shalom's first meeting with an Arab foreign minister since he was appointed on February 27 and follows a US push to kickstart the peace process with the Palestinians.

Shalom said Qatar's strong relationship with the recently appointed Palestinian prime minister, Mahmud Abbas, could be a boost for peace.

"We discussed the Middle East peace process. Over an hour of talks, we asserted the will of both parties (Israel and the Arab world) to do everything to return to the negotiating table," he said.

Hamad, who met Shalom's predecessor, Shimon Peres, last July in Paris, saud the Israeli trade mission that opened in Doha in 1996 had been closed down just before a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference took place in Qatar in 2000.

However, Doha has discreetly maintained links with Israel despite Arab calls to freeze political ties with the Jewish state.

Shortly before the US-led coalition launched war on Iraq in March, the Israeli foreign ministry recalled its three Qatar-posted diplomats and their families.

"Bringing back those diplomats heading up the commercial office in Doha does not imply the mission is to be closed," a ministry spokesman said at the time.

Sheikh Hamad told Al-Jazeera: "We are committed for a certain time to long talks with the Israelis because we must adopt practical steps to put an end to the killing between Israelis and Palestinians.

"There are daily massacres of Palestinian brothers, and there is no Arab action. That's why we've started to talk with the Israelis to find a solution.

"And the only solution is the start by Israel of serious talks with the Palestinians," Sheikh Hamad said, hailing the meeting scheduled for Saturday between Mahmud Abbas and Israeli counterpart Ariel Sharon.

Abbas was briefed by Sheikh Hamad after the latter's talks with Shalom, according to a source close to the delegation currently traveling with Qatar's emir, who is in London after visits to Washington and Paris.

Qatar has established itself as a firm US ally in the Middle East.

It hosted the US military's command and control centre in the war on Iraq and is now preparing to welcome Washington's state-of-the art combined air command centre (CAOC) from Saudi Arabia to the huge Al-Udeid air base, 35 kilometres (20 miles) outside Doha.