RAMALLAH, West Bank — While the United States continues to freeze its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) for refusing President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his "deal of the century," the PA is boosting its relations with other countries. Its aim is to mobilize for a political role far from the US sponsorship of the peace process and to develop economic relations with these countries and ensure their support.
The joint ministerial French-Palestinian committee meeting took place Dec. 8 in Paris. During the one-day meetings, spearheaded by Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and his French counterpart Edouard Philippe, 10 agreements were signed in the fields of civil defense and security, agriculture and nutrition, higher education, technical and professional education, local governance, budget support, water and the environment, and development of the private sector.
This was the second meeting of the joint committee that was formed in 2015 following a decision by the Palestinian and French governments. The committee meets once every two years, and it held its first meeting in 2015 in Paris.
The work of the committee comes as part of the Palestinians’ efforts to push France to spearhead an international political role or form an international support group to sponsor the peace process. In addition, the PA wants France to recognize the State of Palestine and increase its financial support for the PA to make up for the dwindling US aid. The Palestinians are also seeking increased support from France for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which suffered a budget crisis with Washington freezing its allocations for the agency.
France has been recently seeking to move the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ahead. In 2016, France hosted an international conference to discuss the stagnant peace talks.
Despite the committee’s interest in the economic aspects between the two countries and in seeking ways for France to support the Palestinian territories, the premiers also discussed during the meeting political issues.
Hamdallah said during a press conference with Philippe that the PA backs any French role “to establish an international support group, like the Paris peace conference in the Middle East that was held in Paris [on June 3, 2016] with the participation of international and European figures to revive the suspended peace process.”
The charge d’affaires of the Palestinian Embassy in France, Nasser Jadallah, told Al-Monitor, “The agreements that were signed increased French support to the PA threefold, and figures are expected to reach more than 60 million euros [$67.7 million] for the Palestinian territories.”
Jadallah noted that the key agreement consisted of increasing France’s contribution to the PA state budget, multiplying the grants offered to Palestinian higher education students in French universities, ensuring further support from the French Development Agency to Palestinian businessmen in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, proceeding with building the industrial city of Bethlehem and offering professional support and training to institutes and centers offering this training.
Jadallah added that the agreements included completing the French Institute in Ramallah, developing the French Cultural Center and implementing projects to support agriculture and other sectors.
Through joint committees with several countries, the PA is seeking to boost economic and commercial cooperation, in an attempt to split from Israel economically and increase its financial revenues. The PA has been suffering from a financial crisis, with the dwindling international support for the Palestinian budget and the United States freezing its financial aid to the PA for refusing the US administration’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
In a first-of-its-kind move, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asserted in a speech Dec. 8 that the PA wants to dispose of the Paris Economic Protocol or amend it by negotiating with the Israelis through a third party in order to force it to commit to the protocol, and is banking on a French role in this. Palestinian officials repeatedly asked France — the sponsor of the protocol — to open the protocol for discussion and specify the suitable mechanisms for its revision, most recently Abbas during his visit to France in September.
Abbas said in his Dec. 8 speech that the PA informed the Israeli government through then-Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman of its intention to amend or eliminate the Paris protocol. He was referring to meetings between Director of Intelligence Majid Faraj and Minister of Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh with Liberman before he resigned.
The Paris Economic Protocol, signed on April 29, 1994, regulates the Israeli-Palestinian economic relations in the West Bank and Gaza during the transitional phase of the Oslo Accord that was supposed to end in 1999. But it did not end and the protocol is still enforced.
On Dec. 8, Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Malki told the Voice of Palestine that France agreed to cooperate in reviewing the protocol for amendment and determining suitable mechanisms for review. Palestinian Minister of Economy Abeer Odeh will follow up this issue with the French, after communicating with the Israelis to find out their reaction, according to Malki.
Jadallah said, “This is not the first time the Palestinians call on the French authorities to interfere and pressure Israel to amend the Paris protocol. During his visit to France in September, President Abbas met with French President Emmanuel Macron to voice the same concerns and asked Macron to talk to Israel to amend the protocol.”
He added, “The Paris protocol ended in 1999. Its perpetuation restricts the Palestinian economy and obstructs its growth. The protocol must be amended. France has promised during the recent meeting of the joint committee to pressure Israel to amend the protocol, and we have high hopes.”
Odeh said in a Dec. 10 press statement, “The PA is waiting for practical steps from France that has given its initial approval of reopening the protocol for discussion and determining the needed mechanisms for review.” She added that the Palestinians are inclined to develop the industrial sector, boost national production and promote its ability to satisfy the Palestinian market, and improve exports as a strategy to split gradually from Israel.
Samir Abdullah, former minister of planning and senior researcher at the Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS), told Al-Monitor that reopening the Paris Economic Protocol for discussion is a positive step, especially in the presence of a third party to pressure Israel to abide.
He noted that Israel is only committing to some provisions of the protocol that serve its interests. For instance, the protocol calls for equal treatment between Palestinian and Israeli importers and merchants at ports and airports. But this is not the case because the list of commodities in the agreement and their quality, which have been the same for 24 years, need updating.
Abdullah said that the Paris Economic Protocol called for forming a joint committee to follow up on the implementation of the protocol and solving related problems. Through this committee each party would be able to review any issue related to the agreement. But the committee has been defunct for years because Israel impeded its work.
With the ongoing political deadlock, it seems the PA wants to change the nature of its relations with Israel more than ever — relations marked by economic and political agreements since signing the Oslo Accord in 1993. But this desire might not materialize if Israel continues to resist.
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