Bethlehem - Ma'an/Agencies - In what was likely the first meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu's government, the Palestinian Authority's finance minister attended a joint conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, according to Israel's Jerusalem Post.
Speaking at a conference organized by the Peres Center for Peace and Tel Aviv University, PA Finance Minister Dr Bassim Khoury insisted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "economic peace" plan had failed, the Thursday report said, adding that Khoury also spoke unofficially but cordially with Israeli Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom.
"Economic peace was already attempted in the past and it failed," Khoury said, according to the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "A majority of the Oslo agreements were economic. The agreement included an Israeli commitment to Palestinian work in Israel and a passage of Palestinian goods between the West Bank and Gaza. However, Israel did not honor even one article."
"Before Oslo, the Israeli GDP was 11 times bigger than the Palestinian GDP. Five years later, it was already 20 times bigger because the Israeli economy flourished while the Palestinian economy shrank, and this is much before the second intifada. Today, our GDP is 35 percent smaller than our GDP in 1991," he added, according to the newspaper.
"We know how 'to fish' very well, and if we have a state, it will prosper. But today we don't have a state, but a collection of solitary islands because of the lockdown on the Gaza Strip, restrictions on movement with the West Bank, and the lack of movement between the West Bank and the Strip," Khoury reportedly noted.
Although the meeting was not officially between Israel and the PA, Khoury was reported to have sat next to Shalom, and the two shook hands upon meeting and departing, according to the Jerusalem Post. The paper quoted Khoury as making a point that the meeting did not represent bilateral talks, which ended when the Gaza assault began last winter.
"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. Let's hope that it will bring real engagement between Abu Mazen [President Mahmoud Abbas] and Prime Minister Netanyahu," Shalom said, according to the paper. "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."
Shalom and Khoury seemed to agree on a number of points, particularly the lack of action on pushing forward peace talks. Shalom insisted it was Israeli bureaucracy and general intransigence that explained Israel's failures, not ill will toward the Palestinians, both newspaper reported.
"Some of this is our fault – unnecessary Israeli bureaucracy that holds things up," the official admitted, according to Yedioth, which reported he also called on Palestinians to play their part, as well.
"[E]ven joint projects with the Jordanians experience delays because of Israeli bureaucracy. We ask any Jordanian worker who wants to cross into to Israel to wait two months for visa and to pay NIS 90 (about $24) entry fees per day. It is not realistic to expect him to work once every two months and to pay half of his salary to customs," he added, according to the paper.
Shalom also defended Netanyahu's "economic peace" approach, but insisted that there was no reason a political track could not be moved forward at the same time. "There is no reason in the world for the two process not to take place at the same time." "The fact that he [Netanyahu] 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."
In regard to negotiations, Khoury said, "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."
"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," or settlements.
The Jerusalem Post quoted Khoury as adding, "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."
Finally, the Israeli official played up his country's plans to deport hundreds of foreign workers from Africa, and suggested that it would benefit Palestinians, who are often brought in from the West Bank to perform menial tasks for Israeli companies.
"When there are too many foreign workers in Israel, they first of all take the jobs of Palestinians," Shalom said.