Palestine seeks to boost economy

NABLUS, West Bank: Two investment conferences will be held later this year to try to boost the Palestinian economy and US-backed peace talks, Palestinian and Western officials involved in the preparations said yesterday.

One conference will be held in the West Bank city of Nablus in November. A second will take place in London later this year.

The conferences are part of an effort to bolster the Palestinian economy as President Mahmoud Abbas takes part in US-backed peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

“There is a real willingness of people to come and invest here,” international Middle East envoy Tony Blair said during a visit to Nablus, where a Palestinian law-and-order campaign got under way last November.

“But they need to know that the security and the (Israeli) restrictions are going to be conducive and helpful to that investment… They want to know they’re going to invest in an economy that can breathe,” he said.

The former British prime minister has long pressed Israel to remove checkpoints and roadblocks that prevent the passage of people and goods in the occupied West Bank, but only a small number of changes have been made, Palestinian and Western officials say.

At an investment conference in May in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, investors pledged to pump $1.4 billion (BD53 million) into Palestinian businesses.

It is unclear how much additional money could be raised in Nablus and London.

Nablus conference organiser Samir Hulileh sees millions of dollars in pledges for large projects, including an electricity plant in the town of Qalqilya and an iron factory in the northern West Bank.

Hulileh said he expected the conference to draw about 100 Arab investors, mainly Palestinians living abroad, as well as some 350 local investors.

Palestinian Economy Minister Kamal Hassouni said: “This conference will help revive the economic situation in Nablus in particular in the northern West Bank in general.”

Launched last November with the goal of reaching a statehood agreement in 2008, the peace talks have been marred from the start by violence, disputes over Jewish settlement building and doubts about the stability of Olmert’s government.

Olmert has announced plans to step down as prime minister once his centrist Kadima party elects a new leader later this month, but he could remain caretaker premier for months until his successor forms a government. Blair said it was unclear whether a statehood deal could be achieved this year. “Either it will happen or it will not… I just know they’re working on it,” he said.

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