Qatar Salutes Israeli Withdrawal

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Qatar (search) praised Israel for ending its 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip this week and urged Arabs to make a reciprocal gesture and work together to chart the region's future.

The Gaza (search) withdrawal completed on Monday has prompted unusual praise for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who is in the United States attending a U.N. summit.

On Wednesday, President Bush (search) met Sharon and told him he was "inspired by your courageous decision to give peace a chance." The Israeli leader also shook hands with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, leader of one of the world's largest Muslim countries.

"I salute this step by Israel," Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said Wednesday in a speech to the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.

"Arab countries must take a step toward Israel through an international meeting or a meeting between Arab states and Israel and the co-sponsors of peace, particularly the United States, in an attempt to come up with a clear vision [of] the period after Gaza," he said.

The tiny, oil-rich state of Qatar is a close U.S. ally in the Gulf. It is home to the U.S. Central Command's forward operations in the Middle East and has had low-level contacts with Israel in the past.

Arabs have proposed a peace plan calling for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, which would all be part of a Palestinian a state. They also demand Israel give up the Golan Heights captured from Syria. In return, they say they will offer Israel normal relations and peace with the Arab world.

The Qatari minister said it is the role of the United States to bring the region together after the withdrawal.

But there is concern among Arabs that Israel will use the Gaza withdrawal and the dismantling of Jewish settlements there to consolidate its hold on the West Bank.

"If we have to talk to them [the Israelis] it doesn't mean we accept all what they say. But they are part of the United Nations," he said.

He said Arab hard-liners who refuse to talk to Israel were following a "wrong policy."

At the United Nations Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom urged Arab and Islamic states to open contacts with Israel if they want to help the cause of peace in the Middle East. He maintained that Israel was making progress on that front but did not divulge details.

"I think all the Arab and Muslim countries should know that if they would like to help the Palestinians they should have good contacts with both sides," he told reporters. "Otherwise, it will be impossible for them to help the Palestinians."