DOHA – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attended the opening of a forum on democracy in Qatar on Sunday on a rare visit to the Gulf that sparked boycotts by other invited guests.
The leader of the gas-rich emirate which hosts U.S. Central Command, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, opened the three-day forum shortly after Livni was welcomed by Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani.
Livni did not speak to reporters but was heard chatting with the Qatari prime minister after sitting at a dinner table at which Omani minister for foreign affairs Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah was also seated.
"I have seven cancellations because of your arrival. Don’t cause any more problems," Hamad bin Jassem told Livni jokingly.
"We (Arabs) have to blame the Israelis, always," he added.
Livni was in Qatar to address the forum on democracy and meet leaders of the emirate.
Livni was due to address the Doha Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade on Monday during a session on international dialogue and international peace, but no Arab participant was listed among the speakers at the session, according to the programme released by the organizers.
Although Qatar has political contacts with Israel and hosts a commercial interests office, Livni’s presence at the forum is a rare occurrence in the Arab world and comes amid an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and persistent violence.
Livni’s Focus in Doha
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who was due to open the forum later Sunday, met Livni in New York last September.
An aide to Livni said her meetings in Doha would focus on Iran’s nuclear drive.
Qatar maintains good relations with Iran, and like other Gulf Arab states, backs a diplomatic solution to the West’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Livni’s aide said she will also discuss the situation in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli minister is expected to hold several bilateral meetings with the Qatari leadership, "tour national sites and centers, and hold other meetings," her office said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres visited Qatar and met the emir in January 2007 when he was still deputy prime minister in Ehud Olmert’s government.
Qatar has used its gas and oil wealth to play a diplomatic role and try to mediate in several regional conflicts in the past few years.
Palestinians Reject Livni’s Presence
Members of the West Bank-based government named by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas’s seizure of Gaza last June will be attending the forum.
Economy and communications minister Kamal Hassuna said he was touring Gulf and other Arab countries to invite businessmen to a conference on Palestinian investment due to be held in Bethlehem on May 21-22.
Other Palestinian figures attending the forum include Jawad Naji, an adviser to Abbas’s prime minister Salam Fayyad, and Mustafa Barghuti, secretary general of the Palestinian National Initiative.
"Our presence here has nothing to do with her (Livni)… But we should not stay away from any forum, especially in order (to lobby for) lifting the blockade imposed on the Palestinian people," Barghuti told AFP.
"We reject her presence in the Arab world before the (Israeli) occupation ends," he added.
"We appreciate Qatar’s circumstances … American and otherwise," Hassuna said, referring to Doha’s close ties with the United States.