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Officials Wrap Up Talks on Major Issues Confronting Middle East - 2004-05-17

More than 1,000 politicians, business leaders and intellectuals have ended three days of talks on Jordan's Dead Sea coast. The aim of the meeting, sponsored by the World Economic Forum, was to discuss some of the major issues confronting the Middle East and how to move ahead.

The luxurious, isolated resort on the shores of the Dead Sea offered perhaps just what conference participants needed, a secure and comfortable place to meet in groups and over meals to talk about some of the many issues facing the Middle East.

Topics ranged from business opportunities, banking and finance to education, information technology and U.S. policy in the region. The participants included heads of state, government ministers, business and religious leaders and academics and experts.

But, it was not all just an isolated academic exercise. The issues that dominated the three-day meeting were the most pressing in the region - the situation in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and governmental reforms.

In his closing remarks, Jordan's King Abdullah said talk must now be turned into action to bring about change. ?This is the real challenge that we set ourselves to face in this meeting - to marshal the determination and the will that we need to address the still unanswered question of Palestine, to find the solution for the future of Iraq and to fight to restore our humanity, our values and our innocence,? he said.

And it was also not just a session of lofty goals. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell faced some critical questions and a good deal of skepticism as he defended U.S. policy and sought to reassure participants of American motives.

Grim reality intruded into the debates as well. When Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari spoke to conference participants Monday morning, he found himself first having to address the assassination of Iraqi Governing Council Chairman Izzidin Salim.

?I'm very saddened today for the loss of a great friend, Izzedin Salim. He was killed in a terrorist attack this morning while he was moving from his house to the governing council in the Green Zone,? Mr. Zebari said. ?Three days of mourning has been announced in Baghdad for this tragedy.?

In another panel session, as Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Palestinian Economy, Industry and Trade Minister Maher al Masri staked out their positions and called for greater peace efforts, they were reminded by participants of the violence and destruction currently under way in the Gaza Strip.

The forum may not have resulted in immediate concrete actions, but it did offer a platform for some frank discussions, and it is seldom nowadays that one sees a Palestinian and Israeli minister on the same stage talking.