WASHINGTON, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Israel
hopes a U.S.-backed initiative that helped it expand trade and economic ties with Egypt and Jordan could be part of a peace deal with the Palestinians, a top Israeli official said on Tuesday.
We would like to do that with the Palestinians as well, OK? I hope that this year would be a year of breakthrough, then we would be delighted to do that with them, Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told Reuters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The comment came as the outlook for U.S.-brokered peace talks aimed at reaching a deal to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel remained very much in doubt.
The talks began on Sept. 2, but the Palestinians suspended them after a 10-month Israeli moratorium on housing starts in West Bank settlements
expired on Sept. 26.
However, Israel's new ambassador to the United Nations, Meron Reuben, insisted on Monday the talks were not dead and said it was possible Israel could continue the moratorium.
Ben-Eliezer was in Washington to mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-Israel free trade agreement.
Israeli and U.S. officials met on Monday and agreed to develop a work plan by 2011 for further liberalization in services and agricultural sectors.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke also announced on Tuesday the U.S. government would lead a trade mission to Israel and Jordan early next year.
In his speech to the U.S. Chamber, Ben-Elizer praised a U.S.-backed trade program known as Qualified Industrial Zones, or QIZs, which allows goods assembled in Egypt and Jordan using Israeli components to qualify for duty-free treatment in the United States.
The QIZs led to the creation of tens of thousands of work places as well as billions of dollars of trade and investment in Egypt and Jordan, thus contributing to regional cooperation and stability and the cementing of the peace in our region, Ben-Eliezer said.
In an interview after the speech, Ben-Eliezer volunteered his hope the QIZ could be extended to the Palestinians.
Top Turkish trade officials were also in Washington on Tuesday for trade talks with the United States.
Asked about the possibility of developing a QIZ program between Turkey and Israel, Ben-Eliezer said relations were currently too strained to contemplate that.
Turkey, once a close ally of Israel, has become a sharp critic since nine pro-Palestinian Turkish activists were killed in an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship
Let's hope for better days, Ben-Eliezer said, noting that before the incident he had been very heavily involved with Turkey trying to boost bilateral trade.
Even now, despite the problems between the political echelons in both countries, business between Israel and Turkey jumped more than 30 percent this year, he said.