As Washington prepares to make a determined effort to push forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Bush administration is offering countries in the region the prize of a free trade agreement with the US as reward for their support. In a speech in South Carolina on 9 May, Bush is to call for a free-trade area in the Middle East within a decade. The move is based on the belief that increased economic prosperity is crucial to create the conditions for peace in the region, administration officials say. A free trade agreement has already greatly benefited Jordan and one is under negotiation with Morocco. The only other countries accorded this status are Israel, Canada, Mexico and Singapore. Under Bush's plan, free trade pacts would be negotiated with each individual government. Certain conditions would be imposed, such as having the basic characteristics of a market economy - hence the 10-year timeframe - and being committed to combating terrorism. The White House will pledge to help countries in carrying out the necessary reforms, particularly in improving access to capital for small businesses, strengthening the legislative framework for doing business, and tackling corruption. A round-table discussion of the plan, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and trade representative Robert Zoellick, is to be held in Jordan in June, on the fringes of the World Economic Forum.
The idea of according Middle Eastern countries free trade agreements also fits into the Bush administration's wider strategy in the region. In December, US Secretary of State Colin Powell launched the US-Middle East Partnership Initiative - a campaign to broaden Washington's approach to the region by fostering social and political change. He laid out three pillars to the strategy - education, private sector economic reform, and political change - and promised significant funding for the programme. Bush has also come under pressure from allies in the war against Iraq - in particular UK Prime Minister Tony Blair - to adopt a less confrontational approach to the region's problems. 'We're looking at how we can follow up the military victory in the Gulf with trade and economic initiatives,' Zoellick said last month.