Israelis, Palestinians Applaud Japanese Development Plan

TOKYO - Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan agreed on a plan yesterday to build an agroindustrial park in the West Bank, part of efforts backed by Japan to promote economic cooperation and development in the Middle East.

The parties agreed that Japan will dispatch a research team later this month to select possible sites for the park, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said at the end of a two-day conference in Tokyo attended by senior Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian officials.

The confidence-building conference is the latest attempt by Japan, which relies heavily on Middle Eastern oil, to play a mediating role in the regional peace process.

Under the plan, the agroindustrial park will be built near Jericho and process agricultural products from the Palestinian territories such as oranges and tomatoes, according to a Foreign Ministry official who briefed reporters later in the day on the customary condition of anonymity.

The finished products will be shipped to Jordan, while Israel will ensure the park's security and share technical expertise, the official said. The park will employ Palestinian workers from Jericho, he said.

Much of the funding for the park would come from Japanese development assistance. The Foreign Ministry declined to give a timeframe for the project or discuss how much it would cost, saying Japan would wait for findings of the research team before deciding on specifics.

"Japan does not believe that realizing this vision alone will bring peace to the Middle East ... but we are prepared to work with other countries to achieve that peace," Aso told the visiting officials at a reception late yesterday.

Tokyo hopes to play a leading role in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, Aso said.

Earlier in the day, senior officials from the Mideast parties applauded Japan's plan.

"I think Japan has taken us to the future with their vision," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. "This is an incentive of how things would look if Palestinians and Israelis would reach peace."

"Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis, we shall work together. This is the first time in the Middle East that such an economic cooperation takes place," said Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres.

Also attending the conference was Farouk Kasrawi, special adviser to Jordan's King Abdullah II.

All three attendees greeted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday and invited him to visit the region.

Japan, which has friendly ties with many Arab countries, has twice before hosted confidence-building conferences between Israelis and Palestinians, in 2003 and 2004.