Palestinians Eye Role on Trade Body

Palestinians could soon get a boost to their hopes for a sovereign state as their officials redouble efforts in a decade-long bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

A delegation headed by Basem Khouri, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of economy, will be in Geneva from Sunday, and through most of October, to petition for observer status at the trade body.
Khouri’s presence signals a new seriousness; as a ministerial presence was lacking from the previous bid in 2005.

While activists are split over how economically beneficial WTO membership would prove to be, it would doubtless be a pointed symbolic victory.

"By supporting us, the international community can show us they are serious and give the necessary endorsement for stability and peace," Saeb Bamya, a senior adviser to the Palestinian Authority’s minister of economy, told Al Jazeera.

"It would also send a clear message to the Israelis that a two state solution is considered viable."

International Rules

Even so, Bamya said the Palestinians’ WTO aspirations were "not a political issue".

"It’s about joining the multilateral trading system [and] adopting international rules," he said.

"We want consensus on this. The international community should support us to take this step … It’s time, at least at the level of trade, that the international community took some action."

The Palestinian Authority’s trade agreements with Europe and Canada are already governed by WTO rules and Western states have made much of their efforts to build up Palestinian institutions to take on international roles.

But some worry that WTO membership might restrict the ability of an emerging Palestinian state to tackle its economic problems.

According to figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Occupied Palestinian territories saw a decline in per-capita GDP of 2.2 per cent in 2007 and a further decline in 2008.

Rapid Accession

While UNCTAD endorses the Palestinian bid for WTO membership, it acknowledges that an emerging Palestinian state would also need to tackle certain developmental issues. It could find its hands tied by WTO free markets obligations.

"They’re planning for a rapid accession," Raja Khalidi, a senior economist at UNCTAD, told Al Jazeera.

"The way this [application] is being done is to say ‘we are one of the region’s most investment-friendly, liberal, transparent places to do business’.

"But over-liberalization is actually the last thing the Palestinian economy needs. They need to take their time, its a war-torn economy – over 40 years of occupation."

Nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority has enthusiastically pursued WTO membership over the years and in the build up to the WTO meeting in October, Palestinian lobbyists have been courting officials from the body’s 153 members.

Long-Running Ambition

In fact, the Palestinians’ struggle to join the WTO owes more to bad timing than political machinations.

"It’s not a new step," Bamya told Al Jazeera. "It’s a step that was supposed to be taken 10 years ago."

The PA took the decision to seek WTO membership back in 1999, but on American advice froze its plans awaiting a final status agreement that at the time – in the build up to the Camp David summit – appeared to be close.

But the summit ended in impasse and in the Palestinian territories, the Second Intifada erupted.
Then, in 2005, at a WTO meeting in Hong Kong, the Palestinians won overall support in their bid for observer status, but Fatah’s electoral defeat at the hands of Hamas in the 2006 elections saw the process stall.

World powers backed away, refusing to deal with Hamas.

Still Gaps

There are also some questions over whether Palestinian institutions are ready for the commitments that WTO membership would impose.
"Of course there are still gaps," said Bamya. "And we should address all the gaps in areas such as capacity building and legal institutions."

Observer status on the WTO could lead to full membership within five years and this time the Palestinians appear likely to get their wish.

The US has rarely been as willing to pressure Israel as it currently is and Palestinian officials point slyly to the assertion by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that he supports an economic peace and ask how, under those circumstances, Israel could object.

A vote need not be unanimous, there must simply be no objections. Asked whether he expected to encounter any, Bamya said: "Logic says no, but you have to expect the unexpected."

Barring the unexpected, the decision is set for October 22.

( English and Agencies)

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