TOKYO (AFP) – Senior officials from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority held talks Wednesday in Japan in a bid to lay the groundwork for peace by improving the Palestinian economy.
Japan, which is seeking a greater role in the Middle East, hopes the talks will lead to a deal on its signature project in the region — starting an agro-industrial park in the West Bank in early 2009.
Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura pressed Israel during the talks to halt plans to build more Jewish settlements.
He called for progress on the “road map” to a peace deal creating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as outlined in the November summit in Annapolis near Washington.
Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, heading the Israeli delegation, replied that the Jewish state “will continue to abide by the road map and continue to pursue negotiations with the Palestinian side,” according to a memo released by Japan after the talks.
“Israel praises Japan’s support to improve the lives of Palestinians and wants to cooperate as much as possible,” he was quoted as saying.
The two also met together with Jordanian Foreign Minister Salah Bashir and Palestinian planning minister Samir Abdullah.
The talks aim to get off the ground a project first proposed by Japan in 2006 to build a complex near Jericho to export fruit and vegetables via Jordan to the Gulf.
Japan hopes construction can begin early next year and that it would provide badly needed jobs for up to 6,000 Palestinians, a Japanese foreign ministry official said.
But officials and experts have noted the complexity of starting the project as Israeli authorities control security, water resources and Jewish settlements in the region.
The proposed agro-industrial project “demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between prosperity and ensuring a lasting peace of all of our region,” Jordan’s Bashir told reporters.
But he said co-existence between Israel and an independent Palestinian nation was necessary for the project to take off.
“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the core issue of the Middle East. If we solve that we have a better ability to address the other political challenges but also the prosperity and economic challenges,” he said.
Bashir also called for Israel to end settlements, saying a free movement of Palestinians would “significantly improve the lives of the Palestinians on the ground,” he said.
Israeli authorities last month approved a plan to build 40,000 new homes in Jerusalem over the next 10 years, including in the annexed Arab eastern sector of the city.
Japan was eager to hold the meeting before it hosts next week’s summit of the Group of Eight rich nations, where the Middle East is expected to be on the agenda.
But Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both backed out of making the long trip to Japan, saying the timing was not right due to domestic strife at home.
Japan, the world’s second largest economy, has been seeking a higher profile in the Middle East as part of its effort to become a larger player on the global stage.
Japan has portrayed itself as a neutral broker in the Middle East due to its lack of historical ties. But Tokyo has long maintained friendly relations with Arab states and Iran, on which the resource-poor Asian power depends heavily for oil and gas.