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(photo credit: Courtesy: Peres Center for Peace )
The first ministerial-level meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the establishment of the Netanyahu government was held Wednesday in Tel Aviv, with Vice Premier Silvan Shalom and PA National Economy Minister Bassim Khoury attending a conference on economic peace organized by the Peres Center for Peace, Tel Aviv University and the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
The two sat next to each other and shook hands when meeting and departing, and though the Palestinian representative made sure to note that it was by no means a bilateral meeting, both sides reiterated their governments' desire for peace.
Shalom spoke first, greeting the audience of foreign diplomats and guests in English before moving over to Hebrew for the main portion of his speech.
"I think it is the first time that there is an engagement between a Palestinian minister and an Israeli minister from the new government here, and I would like to believe that it is the first, but not the last. Let's hope that it will bring real engagement between Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] and Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu," he said, adding that "I would like to believe that after four months, the time has come [for] the first meeting between both leaders [to] take place immediately and, as we say, the sooner the better," said Shalom.
Referring to the conference's title, "What Comes First? Economic Peace and the Two-State Solution," Shalom said he felt this was the wrong way to present the situation. The assumption that economic peace and political dialogue are mutually exclusive is exactly the problem with the Palestinian thinking, he said. "There is no reason in the world for the two processes not to take place at the same time."
Shalom reiterated Netanyahu's dedication to the idea of economic peace and the conviction that it could lead to real peace in the region.
"The fact that he founded a ministerial committee, chaired by him, and dedicated to removing impediments to joint projects and improving the lives of Palestinians, shows that this government is serious about moving ahead," he said.
The vice premier said that when he looked at the past, he was frustrated by the lack of action on both sides. He said it was an excess of bureaucracy and security measures, and not ill will, that was to blame for the lack of activity on the part of Israelis, and he called on the Palestinians to return to negotiations. Shalom said he couldn't understand why they continued to refuse to come to the table, and ventured to guess that it was because they were waiting for pressure from the United States to solve their problems for them.
Shalom announced that following a visit to the Allenby Bridge on Tuesday, Netanyahu and the ministerial committee had decided to extend the bridge's hours of operation, from 8 p.m. until midnight, with hopes of keeping it open 24 hours a day, if demand justified it.
"It's a small change, but it opens for the Palestinians a gate to the rest of the world. Even if it's not used, just knowing that they have the possibility eases the minds and feelings of the Palestinians," said Shalom.
Shalom also spoke about the government's actions in support of several industrial and agricultural projects in the West Bank that were being backed by European and other countries.
"My target is to bring about a situation where, the moment the ties with the Palestinians are renewed and reach fruition, we will be able to actualize those projects immediately. To wait until there is a meeting between the leaders, and only then to begin, leads us to the same situation we have been in for the last 20 or more years," said Shalom.
"Progress is sometimes slow, but it takes us places one small step at a time," he added. "Getting your foot in the door always leads to the door eventually being opened wide."
Khoury, who entered his post in the PA two months ago, said he had come to the conference because he had been assured that he was participating in a debate, not negotiations. He explained that the Palestinians were not willing to negotiate with Israel, because Israel had failed to meet basic requirements.
The PA minister said that despite the difficulties involved, the Palestinians had repeatedly recognized the State of Israel. He asked that Israel do the same for them.
"I believe the majority of Israelis have to make a similar historic decision to recognize the right of the Palestinian people to establish an independent, sovereign and viable Palestinian state, on the 1967 border, that can live in peace and harmony alongside Israel," said Khoury, who was born in what is now Migdal Ha'emek.
Khoury added that the biggest threat to the two-state solution was the settlements, or "the colonies," as he called them.
"In order to salvage what remains of the two-state solution and to renew the credibility of the peace process, what is most urgently needed now is an immediate and comprehensive freeze on colonies," he declared.
He said the idea of economic peace had been tested many times before and had repeatedly proved to be a failure. He said the main obstacle facing the Palestinian economy was the restrictions imposed by Israel on movement and access.
"The occupation and its associated policies were, still are and will remain the cause of evil when it comes to the economic contraction of Palestine," said Khoury. "Since the so-called economic peace does not address the root causes of the conflict, which is political and not only economic in nature, it simply will not work.
"I believe that we are both tired of the piecemeal approach - or as you call it in Hebrew, the Salami approach," he went on. "We are both tired of half solutions that do not end and cannot resolve our conflict. We have been negotiating, for crying out loud, for 20 years, and everybody knows what the basic parameters of peace would be. How much longer do we need to wait? I believe it is time to make some historic decisions."
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