Israeli, Palestinian ministers collegial almost to the point of disbelief
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Reporter's Notebook

Israeli, Palestinian ministers collegial almost to the point of disbelief

At meeting on sidelines of UNGA, smiling Yuval Steinitz and Shukri Bishara seek to outdo each other in their diplomatic affability

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

File: Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara, left, shakes hands with Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz after a press conference regarding a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
File: Palestinian Finance Minister Shukri Bishara, left, shakes hands with Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz after a press conference regarding a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

NEW YORK — With attention shifting from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s plenary speech to the plenary speech Thursday by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Iranian leader no longer had exclusive rights to the UN charm offensive.

Diplomatic affability was the order of the day when Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz and newly minted Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Shukri Bishara gave side-by-side statements Wednesday at the end of a closed-door meeting to discuss economic assistance for the Palestinian Authority.

The Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee, an outgrowth of the 1993 Oslo Accords, met Wednesday afternoon to discuss Palestinian economic development. Economic development was meant to progress alongside the political track of negotiations, but has largely proven to be a more comfortable field of discussion for PA and Israeli representatives alike.

Recently, Israeli officials have indicated that their Palestinian counterparts may be less enthusiastic about economic development than they have been in the past — but none of that was evident during the Wednesday press conference following the meeting.

Bishara and Steinitz maintained an upbeat, optimistic and congenial tone.

Bishara noted that he was personally grateful for extended opening hours agreed by Israel at the Allenby Bridge Border Crossing, and for recently eased import restrictions for Gaza, enabling more building materials to flow into the Strip.

And the Palestinian minister steered away from making strong political statements — even when pressed — by insisting that he was more of a businessman than a diplomat.

He said he was “really encouraged by some of the initiatives” announced by Israel. “Opening the bridge for extended hours, is immense,” he said. And “enlarging the list of imports into Gaza is of immense help,” he added.

“I hope we can build on these preliminary moves and multiply them. It’s in our best interests to be prosperous,” he said, and turning to Steinitz added, and in “your best interests to see us prosperous.”

Steinitz too, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud party, was affable to the point of jovial. He began by noting how rare it was that he could say that he agreed with the statements of his Palestinian counterpart, but that Wednesday’s discussion was one such occasion.

He spoke to Bishara personally, wishing him well as a former finance minister to a newly appointed one, acknowledging that it was a difficult job.

Steinitz picked up the line about the bridge crossing, saying that Israel was extending crossing hours facilitate the movement of “commuters, businesses and ministers.” He ended the sentence with a chuckle, and a glance along the dais toward Bishara.

For much of his comments, Steinitz sounded more like the member of Peace Now he once was than the relative hard-liner he has become on security issues.

“I hope that with all the turmoil, we will succeed to achieve peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians, for Arabs and Jews in the Middle East,” the cabinet minister enthused.

International interlocutors EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and outgoing Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide smiled and nodded like proud parents as the two ministers played up their shared aspirations for a rising Palestinian GDP and standard of living.

The affability became almost competitive — Steinitz agreed emphatically with Bishara’s calls for Palestinian economic parity with Israel, and raised the ante by hoping that “the rest of the region will share the same standard of living and the same GDP.”

Had the optimism continued any further, Steinitz might next have been proposing the establishment of a Middle East Common Market.

But Steinitz’s cheerful comments did not come without an edge, unsurprisingly given the killings of two Israeli soldiers by Palestinians in the West Bank at the end of last week. The cabinet minister called for an end to “any kind of incitement and hatred in the educational system” because it “might create a huge obstacle to the security and confidence that is needed for the peace talks to succeed and for economic cooperation to develop.”

The proud parents visibly tensed when Steinitz also noted that “we will have to make difficult concessions and the Palestinians will have to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state and to meet Israel’s security concerns.”

Steinitz, however, returned to the statement embraced by all sides that peace “will need courageous leadership” and argued that “most of the people of Israel will support such an agreement even if it includes difficult concessions — on one condition — that the people are convinced that they are getting real peace, a real end to the conflict and real security.”

The few minutes of tension were not sufficient to defuse the congeniality that had settled on the room. Reluctant to let the moment go, the two ministers remained on the dais even after Ashton and Barth Eide left, posing for joint photographs until their handlers’ promptings reminded them that the day was far from done.

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