(JTA) — Economy Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli Cabinet member to visit Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, in more than a dozen years.
Bennett was representing Israel at a conference of the World Trade Organization in Bali. Shimon Peres had visited Indonesia in 2000, when he was Israel’s minister of regional cooperation.
At the trade conference, which included representatives from countries including Canada, Mexico, Russia, Vietnam and India, Bennett stressed the importance of Israel expanding its free-trade relations and upgrading the free-trade agreements it has already signed. Bennett also spoke at a conference plenary on Wednesday.
“Economic ties can create bridges for peace,” Bennett said in his speech. “As minister of economy, I anxiously await the day I can sit down and sign free-trade agreements with all of Israel’s neighbors, as well as other Arab and Muslim states in the wider region.”
Bennett said that expanding Israel’s free-trade agreements is especially important in light of Israel’s recent conflict with the European Union regarding the Horizon 2020 program to promote scientific research and development. Israel is the only non-European country that has been asked to join the prestigious program, but Israel’s signing was held up by a debate over EU restrictions on Israeli West Bank settlements.
“One of the lessons I took with me from the negotiations with the EU on the Horizon 2020 agreements is that Israel must produce, accelerate and strengthen trade agreements, and we must further research and development agreements across the globe,” Bennett said in a statement following the speech. “Israel must not be overly dependent on any one organization or state.”