Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige is working to establish an Israeli-Palestinian committee to promote economic progress and remove obstacles to the Palestinian Authority’s economic activity.
Freige is coordinating the move with senior Palestinian officials, firstly the PA’s Civilian Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh. This is the first initiative with the PA that the government has launched since coming to power last month.
During its first meeting, expected within a few weeks, the committee is expected to advance two Palestinian requests that have already been made. The first is to issue an additional 17,000 work permits to Palestinian laborers to work in construction and industry in Israel. The second is to help advance the regularization of the Palestinian Fuel Administration, following a reform being pushed by the Palestinian Energy Ministry regarding the purchase of fuel for the PA’s use. At the same time, Palestinian ministers are expected to visit the offices of their Israeli counterparts to promote further coordination between the two sides.
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Freige will head the Israeli contingent on the committee, but it isn’t yet known who the Palestinians on the committee will be.
This committee, known as the Joint Economic Committee, is not a new concept; it was agreed to by Israel and the PA in 1994, as part of the Paris Protocol, the economic annex to the Oslo Accords. Back then it was decided that the committee would comprise an equal number of Israelis and Palestinians and each side would have the right to convene the panel to oversee or discuss difficulties arising in the economic areas specified in the protocol, including the status of Palestinian workers in Israel, the issuance of work permits, and advancing issues connected to tourism, agricultural development, veterinary oversight and industry. The original agreement gave this committee substantial authority, including the right to examine issuance of a Palestinian currency.
In 2009 the government moved management of the committee from the treasury to the Regional Cooperation Ministry, but according to Freige the committee hasn’t convened since then, and a substantial portion of its activity was diverted to the district coordinating offices in the territories.
“Unfortunately, in recent years activity with the Palestinians was neglected and the Regional Cooperation Ministry did not utilize its authority in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation,” said Freige. “I’m working these days with the relevant officials in Israel and the Palestinian Authority to convene the committee, which hasn’t met since 2009, to remove superfluous restrictions on the Palestinian economy and on its ability to develop alongside and together with the Israeli economy.”
Freige criticized his predecessors for not having staffed the committee. “Regional cooperation must begin with cooperation with our closest neighbors. The fact that the ministry has ignored them so far is a badge of shame that I see as my duty to correct.” According to Freige, the coalition is expected to promote other joint projects with the PA along with the committee’s activities.
“My main goal is to renew the trust and ability of Israel and the Palestinians to benefit from being neighbors; to build a foundation of trust and mutual economic, cultural and other relations,” he said.