Officials in Egypt and Israel love the idea of a Middle East development bank proposed by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah.
But in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, "there is real antipathy toward any economic cooperation where Israel is involved - no matter how indirectly," Owens said Wednesday after he returned from a 10-day trip to the Middle East.Owens, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, proposed the bank with the dream of helping Arabs and Israelis work together on projects of mutual interest - such as building new regional dams or attracting more tourists. He hopes such cooperation will improve the peace process.
Funding for the bank would come from the U.S. government and private investors throughout the free world. Owens submitted a bill last month to create the bank.
Among those with whom Owens discussed his idea on this trip are Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's President Chaim Herzog, Jordan's King Hussein, Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, numerous government ministers and private businessmen.
"In Israel and Egypt, we got a lot of encouragement from everyone, from President Mubarak - who named two of his closest friends to counsel with me on it - to the deputy prime minister and finance minister Shimon Perez in Israel," he said.
But in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, government officials want nothing that would make them deal officially with Israel. "You can't formalize cooperation between Israel and any Arab country, except Egypt. That's because all of those countries consider that they have a belligerent relationship with Israel."
However, he said, "My strong belief is that there are a lot of informal things that can be done - and that will help nudge the process along and also put organizations and promises and activities in place to take off when the peace process starts, as I am certain it will."
Despite the discouragement by some, Owens said, "I was more encouraged than I expected to be. In Saudi Arabia, for example, we met one of the world's richest men who flew us to his Red Sea weekend palace at Jedda in one of his planes, and expressed genuine interest in being involved in a conference and . . . serve informally on a consulting committee."
He said he expects to help plan a "private, low-key" conference in June to discuss the proposed bank and Middle East economic development.
Even with wariness of the bank by some Arabs, Owens said, "The hope is it can be formed soon and take on some modest cooperative projects, probably between Egypt and Israel.
"It may be very well that it would be organized in the United States and deal independently with the different spokes of the Middle East without Israel being involved, except in its own projects. That is a very rational alternative."