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WARMING TIES COULD YIELD COOL MILLIONS

He's the ice cream king of Israel, and he hopes consumers all across the Middle East will soon be lapping up his products.

With the Casablanca economic summit sending countries in the region hurtling toward commercial interdependence, Michael Strauss doesn't think he'll have to wait long for the borders to melt away.The peace dividend sweeping the Middle East is opening vast new opportunities to businessmen like Strauss. For decades, exports have been stymied by closed borders, boycotts and hostility.

Strauss says he expects Strauss Dairies - which produces 40,000 tons of ice cream a year - to be able to export to Jordan and Egypt within six months.

"Think of our growth," Strauss gushed in an interview. "Don't forget, there are 250 million Muslims in the Middle East. If millions of them come to Jerusalem to pray - think of that!"

The Middle East-North Africa Economic Summit that ended here Tuesday brought together Israeli and Arab officials and businessmen for unparalleled talks on commercial links to fortify the movement toward peace.

In the past year, Israel has signed a peace treaty with Jordan, forged peace accords with the Palestinians and moved toward relations with North African nations such as Morocco and Tunisia.

"A year ago, if you told me I would talk to (Jordan's) Prince Hassan, or Palestinian businessmen, I would think it was a joke," Strauss said.

Now, he's hoping to set up joint ventures with Arab partners. "This is the best way to build up the economy, not just for Israel but also for neighboring countries. In business, you have to take a seed, water it, and maybe you will get a nice tree."

Joint projects could mean phenomenal growth for Strauss's $180 million-a-year business of mostly ice cream and yogurt.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, wants to start up an ice cream industry, which might seem perfect timing for a historic interregional partnership.

But Strauss will have to compete with Western corporate giants that are expanding in the newly liberalizing Arab market, such as Kraft, Nestle, Philip Morris and Uni-ever.

Those firms are also capitalizing on the relaxed Arab boycott against Israel and seeking ways to boost business in Israel, Strauss says.

Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream is in Israel, and Haagen-Dazs is coming. "They would like to be in when peace settles in," Strauss said.

Strauss also has another project brewing: to export hummus, the chickpea paste that is a staple throughout the Middle East.

Exporting hummus to Saudi Arabia? That might seem a little like, well, selling sand to the Arabs, but Strauss doesn't think so.

"There's no large scale industrial production," he says with an entrepreneurial spirit. "Usually, it's just somebody making it in his garage and selling it to neighbors.

"We can export it to Arabs."