PA minister downplays Shalom meeting

Peace talks won't resume until there is a freeze in settlement construction, Palestinians insist.

shalom khoury 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
shalom khoury 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Palestinian Authority Economy Minister Basem Khoury downplayed a meeting Wednesday in Jerusalem with Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom, the first cabinet-level meeting since Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came into office in March, saying that the meeting has no political implications and does not signal any change in the PA's policies. Khoury and Shalom met for some four hours in Jerusalem's King David Hotel, and decided that they would meet regularly every four to six weeks. Both men stressed, however, that the talks did not constitute negotiations, but rather dealt with day-to-day economic issues. "The diplomatic negotiations have still not been renewed, it might be renewed in the coming weeks, that at least is the expectation" Shalom told reporters. "But I think the Palestinian decision today not to wait for a renewal of the diplomatic dialogue, and to take the decision to renew the economic dialogue now, is the right one." Shalom said the Palestinians realized they were only hurting themselves by holding up economic discussions, and that by continuing to postpone these discussions they were not leading Israel to make any additional concessions. A spokeswoman for Shalom said the goal of the meeting was to try and remove bureaucratic red tape - from small issues like importing frozen meat to east Jerusalem to moving along large projects like the planned industrial park in Jenin - that would help the economy in the West Bank. Among other issues discussed were easing restrictions on the entry of Palestinian businesspeople and VIPs to Israel; boosting Israeli meat exports to the West Bank and dairy imports from the West Bank to Israel; and allowing more Palestinians to seek medical care in Israel. In addition to the regular meetings between the two ministers, it was also agreed to have daily contact between their two offices to ensure that what was discussed would be implemented. Khoury, meanwhile, blamed the Israeli media for "blowing the story out of proportion," adding that the meeting had been arranged several months ago. He said that talks with Shalom were restricted to issues related to day-to-day life in the PA territories. "This was not a political meeting," he explained. "We didn't discuss any political issue." Khoury said that he could not understand why some in the Israeli media were describing the meeting as if it were a breakthrough in relations between the PA and Israel. He said that the PA's declared policy of refusing to resume the peace talks unless Israel froze all settlement construction and accepted the two-state solution was still in place. Economic improvement in the West Bank could boost PA President Mahmoud Abbas, however, sharpening the contrast to the situation in the Gaza Strip, ruled by his rival, Hamas. Popular support for Abbas has ebbed because he had nothing to show for a year of peace talks with former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Privately, some Palestinians concede that Netanyahu has done more to improve conditions for the Palestinians during his five months in office than Olmert did in three years, despite his oft-stated commitment to reaching a peace accord. Since Netanyahu has taken office, he has taken down some 147 roadblocks and eased other travel restrictions. This has allowed for a smoother movement of goods and a consequent upswing in the West Bank's retail and entertainment sectors. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the Palestinian economy could grow by 7 percent this year, its first optimistic forecast in three years. AP contributed to this report.