Jerusalem, Sept. 6 - “Despite setbacks, cooperation between Israel and its neighbors exists – and it can go on,” said Israel’s Vice-Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Development Silvan Shalom at a conference on regional economic cooperation in Tel Aviv Monday (Sept. 5). Shalom pointed out that regional cooperation exists on many levels - official, public and private – and that direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians would only improve the situation. The theme of the conference was business paving the way to peace.
Notable leaders, including Israeli President Shimon Peres, stressed the important role security plays in developing economies.
Special Envoy for the Middle East Quartet Tony Blair said he isoptimistic about Israeli-Palestinian peace. “Economics could never be a substitute for politics. However, what we’ve been trying to do over the past few years is significant. You don’t make peace by people sitting in rooms. People make it,” explained Blair. He added that the potential for economic growth is enormous, “particularly if there is [a peace] agreement” among Israelis and Palestinians.
Blair cited joint Israeli-Palestinian achievements, such as the Jalameh vehicular crossing that has connected communities in the northern West Bank to the Arab communities in northern Israel, helping to revitalize the economy of the West Bank city of Jenin.
Opened recently with Israeli, U.S. and Quartet assistance, the crossing facilitates commerce and movement to Jenin - approximately 15,000 Israeli Arabs move to and from Jenin each day and tourist buses from Israel also enter the West Bank through the crossing - a factor that contributed to Jenin’s 16 percent growth in the first half of 2011. As the Quartet representative, Blair highlighted tourism as a means for attracting greater investment in the Palestinian territories.
France’s special envoy to the Middle East peace process for economic, educational and cultural aspects Valerie Hoffenberg echoed Blair’s sentiment. Hoffenberg stated that through cooperation with various Israeli ministries, the Palestinian government was able to successfully create an industrial zone in Bethlehem that is already in its second year.
“We have to prepare for the day ‘after’,” said Hoffenberg, referring to an action plan that goes beyond the Palestinian push for a unilateral declaration of state at the United Nations in September.
“The spirit of cooperation and collaboration must continue. Going to the U.N. in September is not the answer; we are worried about what happens after September and that it could endanger some of our projects,” explained Hoffenberg.
Palestinian businessman Dr. Ismail Jebrani, who now runs one of the West Bank’s largest dairy-farms, recounted how he turned to an Israeli kibbutz company, SAE Afikim, to help address a milk shortage in the Palestinian territory. SAE Afikim helped create his state-of-the-art dairy farm, now one of the “largest and most modern companies in the West Bank,” said Jubrani.
The farm, located near Hebron, now employs 250 people - up from 20 - and has 1,200 cows. The Israeli technology helped the Palestinian farmers increase their herd and take advantage of all portions of the cow’s milk through computerized equipment.
Eival Giladi, chair of the Israeli-Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, also talked about the desire among Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople to trade and build positive relations with one another.
Giladi talked about Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri, chair of the International Chamber of Commerce in Ramallah, and said that they are in the process of setting up an adjudication and resource center that will act as a meeting point for Palestinian and Israeli businessmen who need help with permits or have questions about laws, taxes or modes of business in Israel or the Palestinian territories.