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Debate Over US Middle East Policy Takes Stage at Economic Forum

The Israeli threat to re-occupy Gaza caused a stir among participants in the U.S.-Arab Economic Forum in Houston, with calls by some Arab officials for a more neutral U.S. role in regard to the Palestinian question.

Speaking at a session on U.S. relations with the Arab World, the Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Amre Moussa, called on the United States to play a more active role in resolving the Middle East conflict.

"There is no doubt that this conflict cannot be resolved without an active involvement of the United States, playing the role of an honest broker," he said. "The mentality and approach of achieving security now and peace later will not work."

Moussa said the conflict could be resolved by having the United States bring both sides together, but he avoided mentioning Israel, referring to the Jewish state only as the military occupier. He said Arabs do not hate the United States and do not condone terrorism, but he said they do disagree with U.S. policy. He also said there should be balanced condemnation of attacks against civilians by both sides.

"The Israeli forces of occupation have kidnapped so many Palestinians, residents of the territory under their occupation," he said. "Two days ago or so, a soldier of the military forces occupying the territories was kidnapped. Now there are threats to re-occupy Gaza. I think that this is the responsibility of the Security Council of the United Nations. If the Security Council does not move under such circumstances, when will it move?"

In a later panel appearance, Moussa decried what he described as a U.S. move to punish Palestinians for voting for Hamas in the recent election. He said the U.S. is not promoting real democracy if it condemns the outcome of elections.

But the U.S. State Department's Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, who was on the same panel, rejected that argument.

"The United States is the number one donor of assistance, in the world, to the Palestinian people," he said. "We are in no way afflicting collective punishment on anyone for their decision at the ballot box."

Welch said the United States supports rule of law and respect for minority rights along with democratic elections. He said the Hamas government should be tolerant and cautious in carrying out its programs. He noted that Hamas won with 44 percent of the vote, meaning that 56 percent of the Palestinian voters, although divided in their preferences, would have preferred someone other than Hamas in power.