Ian Black, Middle East editor The Guardian, Thursday October 2 2008
Middle Eastern countries should set up a new regional organisation that includes all Arab states as well as Israel, Iran and Turkey, pro-western Bahrain urged yesterday.
The call - which is likely to provoke controversy - came from Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the Gulf state's foreign minister. "Why don't we all sit together even if we have differences and even if we don't recognise each other?" he told the London-based daily al-Hayat. "Why not become one organisation?
"Aren't we all members of a global organisation called the United Nations? Why not [come together] on a regional basis? This is the only way to solve our problems. There's no other way to solve them, now or in 200 years."
Asked if that should include Israel, he replied: "With Israel, Turkey, Iran and Arab countries. Let them all sit together in one group."
The day before the interview the foreign minister made the same point in a speech to the UN general assembly in New York, calling for such a body to include countries "without exception".
Bahrain is a close ally of the US - and home to a key naval base - and, as with nearby Qatar, has discreet though informal links with Israel. But of the 22 members of the Arab League, only Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania have full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Other Arab countries have always refused to establish relations with Israel until it signs peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria.
All have resisted any sort of "normalisation", seeing it as a concession that can only be made when a comprehensive peace has been reached in the region. But all support the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which called for peace with Israel if it withdraws to its 1967 borders.
Iran, which backs Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, is extremely hostile to Israel. Syria is Iran's only Arab ally. But other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, fear Tehran's regional influence and nuclear ambitions. The Bahraini foreign minister said Arab countries should also play a role in talks between the US and Iran. "We are in Iran's backyard. If we don't know what is going on, how can we put our proposals on the table?"
This year Bahrain appointed a Jewish woman as its ambassador to the US - a first in the Arab world.