Interview: ‘The economic track is all we have’

Vice Premier Silvan Shalom opens up to the ‘Post’ about the challenges of promoting ‘economic peace."

‘The battle here is a real battle over who was here first, who has the right over this land,” Vice Premier and Regional Cooperation Minister Silvan Shalom said. “The reason the Palestinians are so set against recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is because by that criterion it is clear that we were here first. They always attempt to present it like we have been here 130 years at most and are colonialists who took the land from its rightful owners, but the Tomb of the Patriarchs proves that we were here hundreds of years before Islam was even founded.”
The comments come nearly a year after Shalom took office, during a rare interview in which he discussed the challenges of trying to promote economic peace without direct talks, his frustration with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and the original contract that historically rooted Jews firmly in the land of Israel.
Before the elections and in the early days of the Netanyahu government, much store was put into the idea of advancing peace, or at least normalization and stability, by pursuing economic progress for the Palestinians parallel to diplomatic negotiations on the core issues of the conflict. The common belief was that if the economic situation of the Palestinians improved sufficiently, they would have more to lose and as a result would be slower to give up on finding a political solution. A year later, with prosperity and personal security on the rise but still no negotiations in sight, it remains to be seen if the idea will prove correct.
“The economic track is all that there is at the moment. There is no political track. This government is completing a year in office and, in the absence of negotiations, the only avenue we have is the economic one,” said Shalom. “And even that, because of the absence of political negotiations, is conducted through third parties or at low levels.”
Sitting in his office in Tel Aviv, Shalom goes over the list of projects his ministry is involved in. Each one is meant to create jobs, generate foreign trade and, in pragmatic ways, heighten the standard of living for the Palestinian population.
“Most of our work is done in cooperation with the ‘Blair team,’ the team coordinating the work of Quartet envoy Tony Blair. After meeting with the Palestinians and hearing their requests, they meet with us and together we figure out what is needed from our side so that things go ahead smoothly,” Shalom said.
THE FLAGSHIP project of the newly formed ministry is beginning to take physical form. On Tuesday, bulldozers and construction crews broke ground at the site of the new, French funded, Bethlehem industrial zone. The 200 square meter structure, which has been in planning stages for two years, is expected to be completed in the middle of 2011 and will house small to midsized workshops and manufacturing plants.
Officials in Shalom’s ministry say the project is generating jobs from the get go and will increase employment and trade in Bethlehem in a substantial way, once its completed and tenants begin operations. “The endgame is to improve the life of the Palestinians out of hope that in return they will make our lives easier by reducing animosity and battling the militants that threaten our security,” said Shalom.
All of the projects, from the industrial zone in Bethlehem to agricultural projects in Jericho, are done in cooperation with third parties from other countries.
“The international community does the mediation for the time being. I am convinced, though, that if we were talking face to face and the Palestinians committed to a diplomatic strategy, the economic steps could be even bigger and more substantial,” Shalom said.
He points the finger for the lack of progress at the Palestinian leadership. He said that his solitary meeting with Palestinian Authority minister for the economy Bassem Khoury led to Khoury being forced to resign from the cabinet for holding talks with the Zionists.
“Meetings are held at low levels because everybody understands that it is necessary to meet in order to get ahead, but for them, meeting with an Israeli minister is too much like normalization of relations, and they have shown that that is unacceptable to them,” he said.
When asked about his expectations from Fayyad, who is considered by many a fiscal pragmatist and an ideological moderate, Shalom said he was concerned by signs that the PA prime minister was inciting violence after the Israeli designation of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem as national heritage sites.
“Salam Fayyad is on a different path now. He is trying to build himself up as the future leader of the Palestinians and is distancing himself from Israel,” said Shalom. “Fayyad burned Israeli products and went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs to pray as a provocation against Israel.
“We will not be intimidated. It is unacceptable that we are constantly under threat of a third intifada,” he continued. “With all due respect to the modern heritage sites, the places from which the modern Jewish state was born, Jews didn’t come here first with the Biluim in 1882. Abraham was in Beersheba buying property centuries before Islam was founded. That must be highlighted and understood by all sides.”
Shalom’s eyes really lit up when, near the end of the interview, conversation moved over to his second portfolio, the Ministry of Development of the Galilee and the Negev. Here Shalom didn’t need papers to list off the achievements, topped by the foundation of a new medical school in the Galilee and the massive move of military installations to the South.
“Our plan is to bring 300,000 residents to the Negev and 300,000 to theGalilee by 2020. In both places we are investing heavily ininfrastructure and in programs to help create jobs and affordablehousing,” he said. “What is needed in the country is a clear shift inpriorities focusing toward social and civilian causes... Given theresources, believe me, I can bring about the results, nobody can doubtmy execution capabilities.”
Shalom said he was equally fond of both roles.
“I come from the South, that’s where my roots are and it is veryimportant to me to improve the quality of life in Israel’s periphery. Ialso like the role in shaping the regional economy. There I can takeadvantage of my experience as foreign minister and finance minister anddeal with economic issues and matters of state,” he said.