Binyamin Ben-Eliezer visits Afula 311.
(photo credit: Yoram Cohen)
WASHINGTON – Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer said Tuesday that if the White House presses the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians can make progress with peace talks.
“If President Obama will try to gather all powers, and all forces, that can put pressure on and influence the two leaders, it can be done,” said Ben-Eliezer in response to a question from The Jerusalem Post. He spoke to reporters after meeting with White House senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross.
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Ben-Eliezer blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, for the current impasse in talks, which have stalled since Palestinians have refused to speak to Israel since Jerusalem failed to extend the settlement freeze that expired in March.
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who appeared with Ben-Eliezer at a conference Tuesday marking the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement, rebuffed the suggestion that action at the UN in light of that impasse could affect Israel’s calculations.
“Israel will not allow its borders to be dictated by the United Nations and other international organizations,” he said. “Our borders will only be determined by peace negotiations conducted by us and the Palestinians.”
Certain Palestinian and Arab leaders have suggested that rather than participate in peace talks, they would press the UN to recognize a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Ben- Eliezer, however, urged the international community to bolster Abbas so that talks would continue.
“The major obstacle is Abu Mazen,” he said. “He always needs reinforcement, he needs backing.”
Ben-Eliezer said his talks with Ross focused on Iran, which Israel fears is running out the clock on developing nuclear weapons.
Ben-Eliezer noted that he has also visited with many Arab leaders and that they are “concerned, concerned, concerned” about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.
The bulk of Ben-Eliezer’s American trip, however, is focused on activities surrounding the 25th anniversary of the US-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
Ben-Eliezer was a keynote speaker at the US Chamber of Commerce conference on Tuesday commemorating the occasion, the first free trade agreement the US ever signed.
US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke pointed out that trade between the US and Israel has quintupled since the agreement was made.
“It’s the model for what free trade agreements should be,” Locke said. “It’s provided a foundation that has become one of America’s most important economic and political relationships.”
Still, US Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham pointed to some outstanding issues between the two countries in his address during the conference, despite tariffs having been dropped on almost all goods.
“Full elimination of all tariffs on products exported to Israel has not yet been achieved,” he pointed out. “Elimination of those tariffs could boost exports to Israel by up to $60 million.”
He also called on Israel to reduce “bureaucratic” and other barriers on US exports to Israel.
Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry Director-General Sharon Kedmi noted that the two countries are now embarked on updating the Free Trade Agreement to better reflect the realities of the modern- day economy.
A joint statement put out by Ben-Eliezer and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that they started drafting a work plan that, by the beginning of 2011, “would address remaining barriers to our bilateral trade that will help us to fully realize the potential gains to both countries.”
Israel wants to focus on technology, services and improvements in visas to facilitate the movement of people, according to Kedmi, while the US is looking for reductions in agricultural tariffs.
“It will take time because it’s a delicate issue, but I see no reason whatsoever why they won’t [work out] an agreement,” Kedmi said.