Interview'Deadlock in relations over the past 10 years unacceptable'

Regional Affairs minister shifts focus to expand ties between Israel, PA

Meretz politician Issawi Frej hopes to end years of deadlock in ties, with Health Minister Horowitz, Environment Minister Zandberg meeting Palestinian counterparts in Jerusalem

Meretz MK Issawi Frej attends an Economic Committee meeting at the Knesset on July 12, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Meretz MK Issawi Frej attends an Economic Committee meeting at the Knesset on July 12, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej wants to seize the opportunity provided by the new government to revive long-dormant civilian cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he told The Times of Israel in an interview.

Frej, a veteran Arab Israeli politician who belongs to the left-wing Zionist Meretz party, has reinvented his office — which his departing predecessor Ofir Akunis (Likud) deemed “redundant” — to serve as a kind of coordinating body between Israeli civilian politicians and their Palestinian counterparts.

“The deadlock in relations over the past ten years is unacceptable. You can’t have an agreement and security coordination and be someone’s neighbors — and at the same time ignore one another and have frozen relations,” Frej said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel in his Knesset office. “Stagnant water brings insects,” he said.

Frej saw the first fruits of his policy Wednesday when his Meretz colleagues Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg met their Palestinian counterparts in Jerusalem, officials said.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2017. During the intervening years, relations ground to a halt, and there were few public contacts between the two sides’ senior politicians.

The exception was occasional phone calls between Abbas and then-president Reuven Rivlin. Most ties with the Palestinians, however, were conducted through the Shin Bet security service and the Israeli military.

President Reuven Rivlin, right, meets Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the funeral for late former president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, on September 30, 2016. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

But over the past few weeks, at least six civilian contacts have been held between the two sides. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev both spoke to Abbas, and newly inaugurated President Isaac Herzog did so twice.

Frej was mum on whether Prime Minister Naftali Bennett might one day speak to Abbas himself.

But Wednesday’s meetings were just a start, he vowed.

“Not just [those two]. There will be other meetings with the transportation ministers, the economic ministers. The process is continuing. There is will and commitment on both sides — we are going to discuss civilian matters to the benefit of both sides,” Frej said.

The Palestinian Authority has seen a tough economic year. Battered by the coronavirus crisis and diminished international aid, it has struggled to pay its many public sector employees.

“Strengthening the Palestinian Authority’s economy will strengthen the Israeli economy because the two are tied together. It is mutually beneficial,” Frej said.

Robert Wexler, a former US congressman, recently met with senior Israeli and Palestinian policymakers to discuss tangible steps towards shrinking the conflict. He said at least some of the push to improve ties with Ramallah stemmed from a desire to improve ties with the United States, which has expressed support for such initiatives.

“I know that Bennett wants to do this, to his credit, and it fits into his desire to improve bipartisan relations in Washington,” said Wexler, who currently serves as president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.

According to Wexler, Israeli officials are committed to the approach. Justice Minister Gidon Sa’ar even suggested expanding a railroad line from Jenin to Haifa, effectively allowing the Palestinian Authority to have a port under Israeli security supervision, Wexler said.

Frej, originally from the central Arab city of Kfar Qassim, is just the second Muslim minister in Israel’s 70-year history, and the first to serve in an Israeli government for over a decade.

“It goes without saying that [Issawi] has a unique role to play given who he is. There’s a unique moment in which someone of his profile can play such a profound role in helping to show the potential of Israel,” said Wexler.

Frej is the first to acknowledge that the new Israeli government — stretching from Islamists to right-wing settlers — is unusual.

“This strange, unexpected assembly of a government — I view it as an achievement for Israeli society. You see all the diversity and poles in our society in one government,” said Frej.

Nonetheless, the new government has seen Meretz make some humiliating concessions: voting in support of a law banning Palestinian family reunification and backing a compromise that allowed a settler outpost to potentially one day become a legal settlement.

Frej called these concessions “the price of being in the coalition. Everything has a price. And we were in the opposition for 21 years.”

“If we waited for the opportunity to implement our entire agenda, we’d be stuck waiting until the end of time. When we decided to be part of this coalition, this had a price that we knew we would pay — it was a decision to serve our community from inside the government,” Frej argued.

“But the government has persevered, and as I see it, it will continue to do so,” he concluded.

Meretz MK Issawi Frej at a party conference in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The new government is headed by Bennett, who was for years seen as the representative of the West Bank settlement project. He has often castigated the Palestinian Authority as supporters of terror.

Asked whether his push to expand civilian ties with Ramallah had Bennett’s backing, Frej laughed.

“I’m not working in secret — I’m working out in the open. When I sat down with Palestinian ministers two weeks ago — as I will again next week — and we discussed and spoke and exchanged on these matters, it was all open.”

In fact, Frej insisted, the wide and diverse coalition all agreed that strengthening the PA would benefit Israel.

“We share the conviction that a strong Palestinian Authority benefits the whole region,” Frej said.

Whenever Frej is asked to clarify whether his current project could lead to a peace-building process with the Palestinians — one with serious political consequences — he immediately dismisses the subject.

“My work is concentrated on social and economic matters — regional cooperation — rather than security and political issues,” he emphasized.

Politicians in the coalition have repeatedly said that the new government will neither annex the West Bank nor withdraw from it and establish a Palestinian state.

But at times Frej’s enthusiasm overcomes his carefully articulated, cautious hedging. Waving his hands to make his point, Frej argued that any future progress between the Israelis and Palestinians depends on their ability to work together on just those economic and social issues.

“Working together creates opportunities for us to get closer. When you think about the future, you must think about the present. The future won’t come without a strong present. You can’t build a future without a strong present. Can you build a building without a foundation? The foundation is interaction between people!” Frej said.

One initiative backed by Frej — 16,000 new work permits for West Bank Palestinians — is now scheduled to come to be approved next week. It was set to be approved on Sunday before being delayed due to technical issues, he said.

“We help the Palestinian economy, and at the same time we help the Israeli economy because there’s a lack as well on the Israeli side,” Frej said, deeming the initiative “mutually beneficial.”

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 3, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

But Frej said he hopes to help advance other projects as well. As an example, he said, the 122,000-odd Palestinians who work in Israel and Israeli settlements mostly receive their salaries in cash. Frej wants to set up a system that would see them paid directly in their bank accounts.

“When you get salaries in your bank, your bank can give you credit, because there’s a salary going back and forth. And credit is the engine of economic growth. But Palestinian workers in Israel can’t get credit, because they don’t use the bank — it’s all in cash,” Frej said.

“There are lots of projects in health, economic, financial fields. We want to create rapprochement and communication and interaction,” Frej added.

Nonetheless, political pressure on both sides is likely to make advancing such projects no easy task. The Palestinian Authority recently rejected a swap Israeli politicians saw as mutually beneficial: the transfer of desperately-needed coronavirus vaccines from Israel to Ramallah. In exchange, Israel would receive a later shipment of vaccines the PA had purchased.

But the whole project blew up when Ramallah first accepted and then rejected the vaccine transfer following a backlash on Palestinian social media backlash.

“There was a communication mistake in how the vaccine issue was presented. There are parties who don’t have any interest in this kind of rapprochement,” Frej said darkly, without naming names.

But Frej expressed confidence that the process would nonetheless go forward. “The train has left the station,” he said.

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