Israeli and Palestinian ministers held a rare meeting in Jericho on Wednesday morning, as a possible first step toward a thaw in the peace process which has been frozen for over two years.
“I think the success of today’s meeting will help increase the changes of dialogue at the level of heads of state. Today’s meeting seems to point in a positive direction,” Likud Minister Tzahi Hanegbi told reporters at the Oasis hotel.
He had just met with Palestinian Authority Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein Al-Sheikh, in an event organized by Japan and hosted by its visiting Deputy Foreign Minister Kentro Sonoura. Jordan’s Secretary General of Planning and International Cooperation Saleh Kharabsheh, was also present at the meeting.
The meeting, attended by delegations from each of the four governments, marks one of the highest level interactions between Israelis and Palestinians in the last four years.
It comes amid failed attempts by the European Union and Russia to organize a high level Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.
The diplomats and politicians met to advance a Japan-sponsored industrial park in Jericho, thereby turning that West Bank city near the Dead Sea, into an economic pipeline for the production and export of Palestinian products to the larger Arab world.
Japan has contributed $300 million to the Jericho Agricultural Industrial Park (JAIP), otherwise known as the “Corridor for Peace and Prosperity.) Israel has given $50 million for the project and will help facilitate the construction of new road to the Allenby Crossing into Jordan, that will run parallel to Route 90 in the Jordan Valley. The Palestinian-only road will allow goods to be delivered quickly from the industrial park to the crossing.
After the meeting, Sonoura noted that this was the fifth just meeting since planning for the park had begun in 2006. The last such four-way dialogue had taken place at the same hotel in 2013.
Back then, he explained, the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be moving forward.
This time, the meeting was held outside the context of any such framework and without a clear sense of what is likely to happen between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Still, he said, “the importance of cooperation has not faded.”
Prior to the meeting and again afterward, both Al-Sheikh and Hanegbi publicly shook hands. Al-Sheikh opened his remarks by wishing the Israeli delegation in Hebrew “boker tov” (good morning). He also exchanged a few Hebrew pleasantries with Hanegbi after the meeting as well.
Hanegbi told reporters that the meeting had focused on issues relating to the industrial park and that the atmosphere had been very positive. He added that he believed that the drop in violent Palestinian attacks against Israelis had paved the way for the meeting to take place.
“We saw the major decrease in the hostilities in the last four or five months. This served as a catalyst to gaining more confidence so we could go forward with this meeting today,” he said. “We sat like neighbors trying to help each for the future.”
Improving the Palestinian economy would also help create peace in the region, Hanegbi said.
“Upgrading the ability of the Palestinians to get out of the tragedy and to focuses on their lives, their economy, their agriculture and their industry, is the key issue to progress,” he said.
“For many many years we tried to convince our Palestinian neighbors to put all their energy in building their own livelihood. Unfortunately some segments of the Palestinian society are still drowning in their own animosity toward Israel,” he said.
“This meeting was only focused on the positive,” he said.
But the best way to resolve the conflict, he said, is the resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“Many parts of the political arena are trying to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians. This includes Russia, the United States and Europe. In our view major progress can only be achieved through a direct negotiations without preconditions,” Hanegbi said.
Al-Sheikh welcomed the project which he said could help bring peace and economic prosperity to the region. This vision, however, can only be achieved with “an independent state of Palestine.”