(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Palestinian economic growth is not a substitute for a peace agreement, which could be reached within three to six months if only Israel would stop settlement construction, Palestinian Authority Minister of National Economy Hasan Abu-Libdeh said on Wednesday.
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He spoke in Jerusalem at a press conference with Israeli Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor).
Although there are no direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian, the two men meet regularly to find ways to advance issues relating to trade and the economy.
At Wednesday’s event organized by the Mideast Press Club, they smiled
warmly at each other, and shook hands next to a plate of Hannuka
desserts.Still, they disagreed sharply on the matters relating to the
Libdeh insisted that negotiations could not happen unless settlement
construction was halted, whereas Ben-Eliezer believed that direct talks
could happen regardless of Jewish West Bank construction.
"Settlements are illegal and they are hampering the peace process," Libdeh said.
"Israel has to choose between peace and the settlements. I hope that Israel makes the right choice, which is peace," he said.
Ben-Eliezer said that settlement construction has continued under every
Israeli government, and that Jewish building in the West Bank had not
stopped the Palestinians from signing the Oslo Accords.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was elected by the right wing and he is still willing to talk, said Ben-Eliezer.
"Let us sit in one room, watch what happens and maybe both of us will be surprised," he said.
Libdeh shot back: "Then let him come and say the settlements are frozen. But Mr. Netanyahu is not a man of peace."
"We are ready and committed to signing a peace treaty within three to
six months. All the issues have been discussed. We know what the
differences are between us. We are very close to bridging the gaps. We
can do that if there is genuine interest from your side to respect the
international community," Libdeh said.
Ben-Eliezer responded: "If you want to stop the settlements lets get into the talks tomorrow morning."
All the focus on how and if to freeze settlement construction has
diverted attention from the core issues which need to be solved before a
peace agreement can be reached, namely borders, refugees, Jerusalem and
security arrangements, said Ben-Eliezer.
In principle, he said, an agreement can be reached in less than a year.
"If I were [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen, I
would come to Netanyahu and say, 'let's sit together and begin
discussions for the benefit of children from both sides.”
Ben-Eliezer said he supported the development of the Palestinian economy
and wanted to see it flourish. He hoped, he said to return to the days,
when Israelis could freely visit the Palestinian territories.
He said he was upset by the PA's continued support of a boycott of
settlement goods and in particular it’s plan to ban Palestinian workers
from taking jobs in the settlements. It's estimated that some 22,000
Palestinians work in West Bank settlements and industrial zones.
"When it comes to commerce, we should not involve politics," he said. "I
hope that in the near future we will see the continuation of
Palestinian workers in the industrial zones in the West Bank," added
Libdeh, however, said he believed that the settlement boycott was the right move for the Palestinians.
Before the press conference, the two men met. They discussed Israeli
support for the PA’s bid for membership in the World Trade Organization,
the marketing of Palestinian products in Israel, and the need to
further ease restrictions on Palestinian movement and access in the West
Libdeh agreed that the Palestinian economy had improved. But he warned, the idea of “economic peace is an illusion.”
A peace agreement is needed between both peoples, he said. “Regardless
of how much growth our economy achieves within the status quo, it will
continue to be a very fragile economy,” he said.
The best move for the Palestinian economy and for the Palestinians in general is to reach a peace agreement with Israel.
Ben-Eliezer suggested that the best way to do that was for Abbas to invite Netanyahu to Ramallah to continue the talks.