Blair 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israeli and Palestinian officials continue to meet at a technical and expert level to move economic projects forward, even though there are currently no high-level political negotiations, Quartet envoy Tony Blair told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Blair, who met on Wednesday with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, said his job of pushing forward economic cooperation and capacity building was not significantly more difficult now with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in power than it had been when Ehud Olmert was prime minister.
Though Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met numerous times with Olmert, and high-level political negotiations took place during Olmert's tenure, Abbas has refused to meet Netanyahu or to engage in political negotiations until Israel declares a settlement freeze and accepts a two-state solution.
Blair said it was important to distinguish between the political negotiations, which US Middle East envoy George Mitchell was handling, and the work going on in terms of "security cooperation and getting the economy moving."
"We are finding acceleration in these matters," Blair said, "because people understand the importance of it. Where there is improved security from the Palestinians, then there is some easing of access and movement by the Israelis, and then the economy benefits."
That was always the theory, and it is now proving correct, he said.
Blair sidestepped questions about the political negotiations, saying matters were now at a very "sensitive" stage and that there was a "great deal of discussion taking place."
Matters are likely to clear up at the end of the month, when Mitchell is expected in Israel.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told the Post Mitchell was scheduled to arrive on either July 27 or 28. Ayalon met on Tuesday with one of Mitchell's top aides, Fred Hoff, who is in charge of the Syrian and Lebanese portfolio.
The International Monetary Fund issued an upbeat assessment of the West Bank economy on Wednesday, saying that economic growth there could be up 7 percent in 2009.
Blair, who met with Netanyahu on Monday, was quoted by the Prime Minister's Office at the time as saying that Israel was not getting sufficient credit for easing the access and movement restrictions in the West Bank.
Blair reiterated this sentiment Wednesday, telling the Post that "since we have been asking for some of the changes that are now happening, it is important to acknowledge them. There is still a great deal more to do, but the fact that some of the key restrictions have been eased is something we should acknowledge."
Meanwhile, Syria, and not the Palestinian track, was the focus of Hoff's meetings with Ayalon. Hoff also met with Barak and National Security Adviser Uzi Arad before flying to Damascus.
Ayalon said Israel had sent no message to Syrian President Bashar Assad, and that Hoff had not come here with "a plan, a program, and certainly no maps" to jump-start Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
Rather, Hoff, whom Ayalon characterized as Mitchell's "point man" on Syria and Lebanon, was here for routine assessment and maintenance, to trade analysis and to keep "eye contact."
Ayalon said he had told Hoff that Israel was prepared to enter direct negotiations with Syria without any preconditions, but that it was impossible to talk of peace on the one hand and "incite confrontations on the other" - as he said Syria was doing through its proxies Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and by strengthening its ties with Iran.
Ayalon said there was "no daylight" between Israel and Washington on this position.
It is widely believed in Jerusalem that the prime US concern now with Damascus does not have to do with the opening of a Syrian-Israeli track, but with getting the Syrians to seal their border with Iraq to make it easier for the US to eventually evacuate its troops from there.â€¢