How the Regional Cooperation Ministry can advance Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking - opinion

With the appointment of Regional Cooperation Minister Meretz Esawi Frej, the ministry has an opportunity to positively influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and contribute to peacemaking efforts.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej.

The appointment of Meretz’s Esawi Frej as regional cooperation minister in June 2021 was a breath of fresh air.

For the first time in years, the minister heading the office is wholly identified with advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace and relations with Arab and Muslim countries. 

“The Palestinian issue is the most central to Israel and must receive full priority,” Frej said after taking office. He added that although a 2009 government resolution tasked the ministry with handling key economic components of ties with the Palestinians, his predecessors from the Likud had neglected the issue.

Frej announced plans to visit Ramallah and renew the work of the Joint Economic Committee with the Palestinians, founded within the framework of the Oslo Accords. His ministry stated that it will “formulate and implement measures to remove barriers and strengthen the economic, civilian, social and cultural ties with the Palestinian Authority and enhance trust between Israel and the PA.” 

During his first six months in office, Frej focused on economic aspects related to the PA and to Israel’s relations with it. However, to make a larger impact on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the ministry needs to significantly increase its focus on the political-public, policy and civilian fields.

 Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) meeting in Oslo, November 17, 2021.  (credit: Courtesy) Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC) meeting in Oslo, November 17, 2021. (credit: Courtesy)

In the political-public field, Frej should continue to clearly advocate for the two-state solution and for urgent action in that direction. He would do well to ask for periodic hearings on the Israeli-Palestinian issue at the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In addition, the ministry could launch a ministerial forum for the advancement of Israeli-Palestinian peace and coordinate its activities, lead staff work in preparation for the future resumption of the peace process, follow developments on the ground and their effect – whether positive or negative – on prospects of peace, and establish an experts’ forum to formulate recommendations on how to mobilize the normalization agreements with Arab countries for the advancement of Israeli-Palestinian peace (the Israeli Climate Forum, recently formed by President Isaac Herzog could serve as an example).

In the policy field, it is incumbent on the ministry to expand the framework of meetings between Israeli and Palestinian ministers. Specifically, the Foreign, Finance and Economy ministries should be encouraged to develop ties with their Palestinian counterparts. Frej and his staff could initiate and facilitate such activity, making sure that meetings between ministers lead to an effective follow-up and produce tangible results. 

The ministry can also appoint a special envoy for contact with the PA, for example a diplomat with ambassadorial rank on loan from the Foreign Ministry. Such an appointment would fill the vacuum resulting from the lack of official ties between the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministries.

Frej could also initiate a joint move with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to create a partnership with Jews around the world who are active in promoting peace and ties with the region. During the past decade, such Jewish activists have been often criticized by the Israeli right-wing leadership, and the new government should reach out to them and treat them as partners on the road to peace.

On the regional level, the ministry should link Israel’s improving ties with Arab states to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Frej should raise the Palestinian issue and its importance in meetings with Arab representatives, work to integrate the Palestinians into the emerging Israeli-Jordanian-Emirati coordination on electricity and water, and meet regularly with international envoys tasked with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. 

Frej should also encourage other governments to follow in the footsteps of the US and enhance financial support for peace organizations. Moreover, his office should leverage regional frameworks in which Israel and the PA are members – such as the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, the Union for the Mediterranean, UN institutions, and parliamentary diplomacy forums.

International organizations often serve as a sparring arena between Israelis and Palestinians; they should be turned instead into spaces for advancing cooperation.

In the civilian field, the Regional Cooperation Ministry should assist pro-peace civil society organizations. Under the Netanyahu governments, these organizations were often delegitimized and attempts were made to curtail their freedom. Frej should work to lift barriers, support organizations, help entrepreneurs, ease Israeli-Palestinian shared activities, give visibility to successful projects and influential organizations and create an ongoing framework for engagement with peace NGOs. 

The former UN special coordinator Nickolay Mladenov adopted such an approach in his work to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, and it could serve as a model. This should also be reflected in the ministry’s operations – for example prioritizing project proposals submitted to the ministry that include Palestinian participants, launching small-scale, bureaucracy-free funding for specific activities of peace organizations and encouraging involvement of Israel’s Arab citizens in promoting peace.

The ministry could also help the Israeli and Palestinian Olympic Committees end the exclusion of Israelis and Palestinians from the Mediterranean Games – the “regional Olympics” – and promote a shared event by the Israeli and PA pavilions at the Dubai Expo.

In conclusion, despite the structural limitations in which the Regional Cooperation Ministry operates, it currently has an opportunity to positively influence Israeli-Palestinian relations and contribute to peacemaking efforts. The ministry is being led, in a rare occurrence, by a minister committed to the two-state solution, who identifies the urgent need to advance the matter, who is attentive to the needs of the Palestinian side, who hails from the Arab population of Israel, and whose staff is well acquainted with Israeli peace organizations. 

What is more, Frej is serving at a unique time in which political, regional and international circumstances enable the advancement of new initiatives vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Not only in the economic field, but also in the political-public, policy and civilian fields. Advancing such initiatives should be the leading task for the ministry in 2022.

While doing so, Frej should make sure that his efforts are not used as fig leaves to cover actions on the ground by the Israeli right wing that jeopardize the two-state solution.

The writer is the president and founder of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Faculty Affiliate at Syracuse University’s Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration.