DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, (AP) -Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres launched the highest-level visit of an Israeli to the Gulf region in more than a decade, traveling to Qatar Monday to appear in a television debate show.
Peres will spend two days in the country, where he will answer “tough and controversial questions” from 300 Arab students, according to organizers of the BBC show, Doha Debates.
Peres also was the last major Israeli official to travel to any Gulf Arab country when he visited Qatar in 1996 as Israel’s prime minister, said Roi Rosenblit, the head of Israel’s trade mission in Doha. The six Gulf Arab countries, all U.S. allies, do not recognize Israel. But Qatar maintains low-level ties with the Jewish state.
Rosenblit described Israel’s diplomatic ties with Qatar as “low-profile but good.”
Peres accepted an invitation to appear on the BBC program, which will be recorded Tuesday evening, Rosenblit said. He will be interviewed by host Tim Sebastian and field audience questions on the state of the peace process with the Palestinians, Israel’s summer offensive in Lebanon, the region’s nuclear issues and the potential for prisoner exchanges between Israel and its Arab adversaries, organizers said in a written statement.
Rosenblit said Peres’ trip was not an official diplomatic visit and there were no planned bilateral meetings with Qatari officials.
But Peres is expected to have opportunities to talk with leaders in attendance at the Doha Debates TV show, which is overseen by Qatar’s first lady, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned.
Peres also plans to speak at the Doha campus of Georgetown University, Rosenblit said.
The Israelis hope to enlist Qatar’s help in winning the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas, but Rosenblit said he didn’t know whether Peres would be able to address the issue with Qatari leaders.
In October, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced plans to travel to Qatar for a U.N. conference but canceled after learning that Palestinian lawmakers from the Hamas-led government also would attend.
Qatar has closer ties with Israel than any other Gulf country, allowing the Jewish state to establish a trade mission in Doha, its only diplomatic post in the Gulf. A similar Israeli trade mission in Oman was shuttered in 2000.
But Rosenblit said trade between Qatar and Israel remains minimal, just a few hundred thousand dollars per year.
Israeli businesses operate elsewhere in the Gulf, with diamond traders active in Dubai’s gem markets and Israeli shipping firm ZIM operating from Dubai ports.
Gas-rich Qatar is home to Washington’s Mideast military headquarters, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the Al-Jazeera satellite television network.
Qatar is also believed to be a main conduit of aid to the militant group Hamas and is under pressure from Washington to back peace efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The country has grown in recent decades from a small Persian Gulf backwater into a major international host of conferences of the World Trade Organization, World Economic Forum and the Nonaligned Movement. In December, Qatar staged the Asian Games.
The Doha Debates show enjoys autonomy from Qatar’s immigration rules and can invite guests — including Israelis — who otherwise may not be permitted to enter Qatar, organizers said.
The statement from the TV show described the Peres visit as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students in the Middle East to question a high-profile Israeli politician.”
Previous guests include former President Clinton, Mohamed El Baradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.
Peres’ appearance will be broadcast on Feb. 3 and 4 by BBC World.