DOHA, April 2 -- Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres signed a landmark economic accord Tuesday in Qatar, but political differences between the two countries remained obvious. Peres, making the first visit to the Gulf Arab nation by an Israeli head of government, agreed with Qatari leaders to open offices in each other's country for economic representatives. 'Would this meeting have taken place 10 years ago, probably the most important issue would have been the diplomatic side. Today, it is the economic side,' he told a news conference in the Qatari capital. Peres said the offices would facilitate commercial ties in agriculture, industry, health and tourism. The two sides had also agreed to negotiate agreements on the avoidance of double taxation and the protection of investments, he said. 'We shall go into joint ventures and we should call on private capital to come in,' he said. The two countries will also conduct joint research into agriculture in desert areas using only brackish water for irrigation, he said. The foundations for economic ties between the two countries were laid in December when Israel signed a memorandum of understanding to buy $2 billion of Qatari natural gas through Enron Corp., but that project is still in the conceptual stage. But behind the upbeat mood which followed the signing of the economic accord, the differences of political perception between the two former foes appeared to remain. During talks with Peres, Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al- Thani expressed deep concern about Israel's closing of its borders with the Palestinian self-rule areas since Hamas suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv killed 62 people.
Hamad repeated Qatar's support for the steps taken at last month's summit against terrorism in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, but underlined the need for Israel to support the Palestinian Authority and to lift its border blockade, which has caused economic gridlock in the self-rule areas, which are largely dependent upon the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel. The emir also urged Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, saying a just and comprehensive peace can be achieved only if all parties are equally secure. He said lasting peace in the Middle East had to be based on a land- for-peace principle that would include Israel's withdrawal from East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights -- captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War -- and southern Lebanon, where Israel has maintained a 9-mile-wide (15 km) buffer zone since 1985 to protect northern Israel from guerrilla attacks. Speaking at the news conference later, Peres said Israel had begun to ease the blockade and laid the blame for its squarely on the militant Hamas organization and its suicide bombers. 'If there is somebody responsible for holding up the peace process, if there is somebody who is responsible for the killing of women and children, it is Hamas,' he said. 'Hamas wants a return to the old days when the Palestinian people lived under the illusion that could win with terror. They are responsible for bringing tragedy on to the heads of the Palestinian people,' he said. Peres flew into Qatar from Oman, where he discussed the Middle East peace process and trade Monday with Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Israel and Oman agreed in January to establish diplomatic relations. The Omani foreign minister and Israeli Radio said the plane carrying Peres flew over several Arab countries with which Israel has no diplomatic ties. Peres lauded Oman and Qatar as 'two pioneers in the Gulf'. 'They are pioneers with a good vision of what is to come in the 1st century and are trying to prepare their countries and their younger generation to enter the next century without wars, without hatred and without prejudices,' he said. But an opinion poll published Monday in the Qatari newspaper al-Watan showed the prejudices he was talking about were still very much alive. The poll suggested that most of Qatar's 600,000 people were opposed to the government's initiative on Israel Sixty-nine percent of citizens would oppose Qatar's establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and 60 percent are against Israeli tourists visiting Qatar, the opinion poll found. Of the 600 people surveyed in the poll, 98 percent regarded Israel as the 'enemy and usurper of Arab rights.'