Israel has been reaping diplomatic benefits since it began its now-completed withdrawal weeks ago. Qatar, Pakistan and Indonesia have held high-level public meetings with Israeli officials. On Friday, the king of Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on the sidelines of a U.N. world summit.
After Qatar's foreign minister said Wednesday that Arab nations should reciprocate Israel's Gaza pullout with greater peace steps, many Arabs responded by rejecting any rapprochement with Israel as long as it occupies Palestinian and Syrian land.
Former Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss called for an Arab League meeting to take measures to "check this sweeping, ominous tide."
"I wonder how they can undertake such a step, forgetting a cause they espoused for more than half a century ... under the pretext of rewarding the Zionist enemy for withdrawing from Gaza," Hoss said in a statement.
After "Israeli aggression, we do not see a real Arab response," said Ahmed Haj Ali, a Syrian analyst. "Instead, we are surprised to see acceptance and the promotion of Israeli positions."
But Qatar's overt gestures may be part of a growing momentum to improve ties with Israel.
'Most would do the same'
Hazem Saghieh, a senior Lebanese columnist with the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, said "most Arab countries, if they can be sure that public reaction can be controlled, would do what Qatar is doing."
"Some countries who are against this may take a different stand when their turn comes — and have justifications ready for their actions," he said, speaking from London.
Since the Gaza pullout, Arab countries are encouraging efforts to renew and expand peacemaking as a way to ease the Palestinian conflict and blunt the influence of Islamic militants, who are using discontent about the Palestinians and the war in Iraq to stir up unrest worldwide.
At an Arab summit in March, Jordan proposed normalizing relations with Israel before it makes any concessions on Arab land — a major change to the current policy of promising normalization only after a full peace.
Arab leaders quickly shot down the idea, but there were reports that several countries, particularly Morocco, Qatar and Oman, were considering moving ahead with ties anyway.
Qatar, an energy-rich Persian Gulf nation of less than a million, has taken the lead. In 1996, it established trade relations with Israel, opening an Israeli trade office in Doha a year after Oman opened a trade office in Tel Aviv. Oman closed the office in 1997.
After the Palestinian uprising began in 2000, Qatar said it was shutting down the Israeli office, but the decision was not implemented.
On Thursday — a day after his speech in New York praising the Gaza withdrawal — Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani told reporters it was possible to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel before the formation of a Palestinian state. Then he held a closed-door meeting with his Israeli counterpart.
Some in the Arab world questioned the motives of Qatar, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, saying it was pandering to American wishes.
The United States is making efforts to "end the Arab and Muslim political and economic boycott of Israel" at this week's U.N. General Assembly, said Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, during his Friday prayer sermon.
"The only condition for America's friendship with any country goes through relations with Israel," he said.
In Yemen, Marwan al-Absi, a 28-year-old photographer, said Qatar is "a tiny nation that wants to be great. ... Qataris love the limelight and they love to please the Americans."
Nadira Omran, a prominent Jordanian actress, said the move was a result of "the absence of Arab values."
"The Palestinian cause is no longer an Arab priority," she said.
In Egypt — the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel in a 1979 treaty — Sayed Mohammed, a 58-year-old museum employee, rejected any gestures to Israel over the Gaza pullout.
"These people can never be trusted. Treason runs in their blood," he said, forcefully shaking his head. "They were occupying a land they're not entitled to. ... It was resistance and foreign pressure that prompted them to withdraw."
Mohsen al-Awajy, an Islamist lawyer in Saudi Arabia, said Arab governments' actions do not reflect their people's wishes.
"The masses have chosen their own tools of expression, and Iraq is the best example of that," he added, referring to the anti-U.S. insurgency.