(photo credit: AP)
A recent Japan-backed agreement to promote economic cooperation and development in the Middle East must run parallel to concrete steps to stem violence there and revive the stalled peace process, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Thursday.
Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Japan agreed on a plan Wednesday to build an agro industrial park in the West Bank at a confidence-building conference hosted by Tokyo, which has sought to play a mediating role in the region.
But senior officials from the Mideast parties said in the wake of the agreement that economic cooperation would be impossible without political progress.
"Can regional cooperation be translated into a political solution? Can we achieve prosperity for Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians while the Israeli occupation continues?" Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told a conference sponsored by Japan's Foreign Ministry Thursday in Tokyo.
"Any plans will be meaningless without progress in the peace process," he said.
A senior official of Israel's Foreign Ministry said that while his country was committed to Japan's plan, it also prioritized bringing security to the region over economic development.
"As long as lawlessness continues and terrorists continue to launch missiles, security will unfortunately remain the critical factor," said Haim Divon, deputy head of the ministry's international cooperation division.
Under Japan's economic cooperation plan, unveiled Wednesday by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, the agro industrial park will be built near the town of Jericho and process agricultural products from the Palestinian territories like oranges and tomatoes.
The finished products will be shipped to Jordan, while Israel will ensure the park's security and share technical expertise. The park will employ Palestinian workers from Jericho.
The Jordanian delegate stressed the importance of revitalizing a Palestinian economy depressed by years of conflict.
"We cannot leave the economy of Palestine as it is," said Farouk Kasrawi, special adviser to Jordan's King Abdullah II, pointing to high unemployment, ailing local economies and low food security.
"With a better economy, the local people will be more open to reconciliation," he said. "This economic process should be a building block for a viable economy for Palestine, an essential step in state building."
Tokyo is set to dispatch a research team later this month to select possible sites for the park, according to Japan's Foreign Ministry.
A Mideast peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002, calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from areas captured in the 1967 Middle East war and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel would receive full diplomatic recognition from the Arab world.
Israel rejected the plan in 2002, but has shown renewed interest amid lack of progress in direct talks with the Palestinians, despite continued reservations. An Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 is expected to revive the proposal.