JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister has held talks with the Palestinian president in the occupied West Bank, the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years, officials said.
Sunday’s meeting between Benny Gantz and Mahmoud Abbas signaled a possible shift of direction after the near-complete breakdown of communication between Abbas and Israeli leaders in recent years.
It came two days after President Joe Biden urged Israel’s new prime minister during a White House meeting to take steps toward improving the lives of Palestinians.
Gantz’s office said he told Abbas that Israel will take new measures to strengthen the Palestinian economy. It said they also discussed security issues and agreed to remain in touch. It was believed to be the highest level public meeting between the sides since 2014.
A Palestinian official said Gantz and Abbas discussed possible steps toward improving the atmosphere. He said this included Palestinian demands for a halt in Israeli military operations in Palestinian areas of the occupied West Bank, allowing unification of families with relatives inside Israel and allowing more Palestinian workers into Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the late-night meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a hard-liner who opposes Palestinian independence, as do key partners in his diverse, ruling coalition. But Bennett has said he supports building up the Palestinian economy and expanding autonomy for Palestinians. He also is interested in bolstering Abbas in his rivalry with the ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza.
While Biden supports a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, his administration is focused on interim confidence-building measures. Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pursued a hard-line policy toward the Palestinians, backed by former President Donald Trump.
The Trump administration took a number of steps that favored Israel, including moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem. Abbas halted most contacts with the U.S. and Israel in return.
Netanyahu had repeatedly claimed Abbas was not a reliable partner for negotiating a peace deal, a portrayal dismissed by Netanyahu critics as a pretext for avoiding making concessions.
Hussein Sheikh, a top Abbas aide, confirmed the meeting in a statement on Twitter. It took place on Sunday night in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas maintains his headquarters.