Israeli and Palestinian ministers held a rare meeting in Jericho on Wednesday morning, as a possible first step toward a thaw in the peace process which has been frozen for over two years.
“I think the success of today’s meeting will help increase the chances of dialogue at the level of heads of states, a summit where the head of the Palestinian Authority can participate. Today’s meeting seems to point in a positive direction,” Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) told reporters at the city’s Oasis Hotel.
“Given the stagnation in the public dialogue, it was very significant to hold a diplomatic dialogue that speaks to the will to move forward together,” Hanegbi said.
The Likud minister had just met with PA Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh, in an event organized by Japan and hosted by its visiting Deputy Foreign Minister Kentaro Sonoura. Jordan’s Saleh Kharabsheh, secretary-general of the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, was also present at the meeting.
The meeting, attended by delegations from each of the four governments, marked one of the highest-level public interactions between Israelis and Palestinians in the last two years. It comes amid failed attempts by the European Union and Russia to organize a high-level Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
That the delegations could explore ways to advance economic, industrial and agriculture issues that touch people’s lives “is an excellent basis for continued diplomatic contacts,” Hanegbi said.
The diplomats and politicians met to advance a Japan-sponsored industrial park in Jericho, thereby turning that West Bank city near the Dead Sea into an economic pipeline for the production and export of Palestinian products to the larger Arab world.
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Japan has contributed $300 million to the Jericho Agricultural Industrial Park, termed the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity.” Israel has given $50m. for the project and will help facilitate the construction of a new road to the Allenby Border Crossing into Jordan, which will run parallel to Route 90 in the Jordan Valley.
The Palestinian-only road will allow goods to be delivered quickly from the industrial park to the crossing.
After the meeting, Sonoura noted that this was the fifth such meeting since planning for the park had begun in 2006.
The last such four-way dialogue had taken place at the same hotel in 2013.
Back then, he said, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be moving forward.
This time, the meeting was held outside the context of any such framework and without a clear sense of what is likely to happen between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Still, he said, “the importance of cooperation has not faded.”
“It is my understanding that since the peace talks stopped in 2014, this is the first time that both the Palestinians and Israeli leaders at the ministerial level have met in public. This gives great power to the initiative,” Sonoura told reporters after the meeting.
Before the meeting and again afterward, both Sheikh and Hanegbi publicly shook hands.
Sheikh opened his remarks by wishing the Israeli delegation in Hebrew “Boker tov” (“Good morning”). He also exchanged a few Hebrew pleasantries with Hanegbi after the meeting.
Hanegbi told reporters that the meeting had focused on issues relating to the industrial park and that the atmosphere had been very positive.
He added that he believes that the drop in violent Palestinian attacks against Israelis had paved the way for the meeting to take place.
“We saw the major decrease in the hostilities in the last four or five months,” said Hanegbi, who explained that the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian delegations had “sat like neighbors trying to help each other.”
Improving the Palestinian economy would also help create peace in the region, Hanegbi said.
“For many, many years we tried to convince our Palestinian neighbors to put all their energy in building their own livelihood. Unfortunately, some segments of the Palestinian society are still drowning in their own animosity toward Israel,” he said.
“This meeting focused only on the positive,” Hanegbi said.
But the best way to resolve the conflict, he said, is the resumption of direct Israeli- Palestinian talks.
“Many parts of the political arena are trying to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians.
This includes Russia, the United States and Europe.
In our view, major progress can be achieved only through direct negotiations without preconditions,” Hanegbi said.
Sheikh welcomed the project but said that “we must ensure that there are suitable and sustainable water and electricity resources” as well as “freedom of movement and access” for the goods.
He was pleased, he said, that Jericho, which has been a “hub of industry” for thousands of years, will continue to play a key role in developing the Palestinian and regional economy.
This vision, however, can be achieved only with “an independent state of Palestine,” Sheikh said.
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