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The first ministerial level meeting between Israel and the Palestinian authority since the establishment of the Netanyahu government took place yesterday in Tel Aviv. Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and Palestinian Minister of National Economy, Dr. Bassim Khoury, both attended a conference on economic peace organized by the Peres Center for Peace, Tel Aviv University and the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung fund.
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, starting off by 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. Lets hope that it will bring real engagement between Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And I would like to believe that after four months, the time has come that the first meeting between both leaders will 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 thinks that the presentation of things in that way is wrong. The assumption that economic peace and political dialogue are mutually exclusive is exactly what's wrong with the Palestinian thinking, said Shalom. "There is no reason in the world for the two process not to take place at the same time."
Shalom reiterated NetanyahuÂ¹s dedication to the idea of economic peace and the conviction that it can 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."
Shalom said that when he looks to the past, he is frustrated by the lack of action on behalf of both sides. He said it was an excess of bureaucracy and security measures and not bad will that were to blame for the lack of activity on the part of Israelis and called on the Palestinians to return to negotiations. He said he couldnÂ¹t understand why they continue 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 decided to extend the bridges hours of operation, from eight 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 itÂ¹s not used, just knowing that they have the possibility eases the mind and feelings of the Palestinians," said Shalom.
Shalom also spoke about the governments actions in support of several industrial and agricultural projects that were going ahead in the West Bank with the support of European and other countries.
"My target is to bring about a situation where, the moment the ties with the Palestinians are renewed and reach their 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 were 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. I know it doesn't sound like a grand vision. I know that sometimes it sounds depressing and despairing, but that is the correct way to do things. Getting your foot in the door, always leads to the door eventually being opened wide."
Basim Khoury, entered his post in the Palestinian Authority two months ago. He said that he came to the conference because he was assured that he was participating in a debate not negotiations. He explained that the Palestinians were not willing to negotiate with Israel because Israel has failed to meet basic requirements.
Khoury, who was born in a village, which is now the city of Migdal Haemek, said that despite the difficulties involved, the Palestinians have repeatedly recognized the state of Israel and that he asks 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.
Khoury said that the biggest threat to the two state solution is the settlements, or as he referred to them as "the colonies." "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."
Khoury said that the idea of economic peace has been tested many times before and has repeatedly proved to be a failure. He said that the main obstacle facing the Palestinian economy is the restrictions on movement and access imposed by Israel. "The occupation and it's associated policies, was, still is 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. 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," said Khoury