Fri, Sep 04, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Israel and Palestinians hold Cabinet-level talks

AP , JERUSALEM

Israel and the Palestinians on Wednesday held their first high-level talks since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office in March, pledging to step up economic cooperation despite the absence of peace negotiations.

The meeting came as experts said the West Bank economy could be on the brink of improvement at a time when most countries are treading water at best — if Israel eases restrictions. Palestinians said Israel must dismantle its system of roadblocks and checkpoints that are strangling their economy.

In their meeting on Wednesday, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom and Palestinian Economics Minister Bassem Khoury shared ideas for improving trade, agreed to hold regular meetings and established lower-level working teams, participants said.

Netanyahu is promoting the idea of “economic peace” as a step toward a full peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Though Palestinians are suspicious, noting that Netanyahu only recently and reluctantly endorsed the idea of Palestinian statehood, they are eager to bolster their economy and overcome years of stagnation.

Shalom, who serves as Israel’s minister for regional development, sought to assure the Palestinians that economic progress is a first step and not an end in itself.

“Our objective is economic peace,” he said. “That doesn’t prevent political dialogue, but rather assists it and gives it momentum.”

After the meeting, he told Israel Radio that he expects negotiations to resume in “the next few weeks.”

The meeting on Wednesday at a Jerusalem hotel was the first Cabinet-level encounter between the Netanyahu and Abbas governments.

The agenda included 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; allowing more Palestinians to seek medical care in Israel, and long-delayed plans to build joint industrial parks, Israeli officials said.

The two sides agreed to meet every four to six weeks and to set up teams to handle day-to-day issues, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were closed.

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