Lapid calls for regional summit, Hamas demilitarization

Finance minister says Gaza operation costs will be covered by yearly budget, calls for PA control over border crossings of the Strip

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaks to reporters at the Government Press Office in Jerusalem on Sunday, August 31, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid speaks to reporters at the Government Press Office in Jerusalem on Sunday, August 31, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking ahead of an international donor conference for the Gaza Strip, Finance Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday called on his fellow ministers to organize a regional summit with Middle Eastern leaders to both rehabilitate and disarm the Gaza Strip.

He also maintained that the 50-day military campaign would not take a debilitating toll on Israel’s economy, and called for Palestinian Authority control over the border crossings into the coastal enclave.

“On the 22nd of September the donor countries are scheduled to meet in New York. At that conference the countries of the world will commit aid to rebuild and rehabilitate Gaza. Israel must act before that to avoid a conference where Gaza gets support and Israel gets nothing,” he said at a press conference at the Government Press Office in Jerusalem.

“We need a regional conference, with the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Gulf States and of course the representatives of the Quartet. That conference should focus on one thing — ensuring the rehabilitation takes place alongside demilitarization,” he added.

Lapid called for cooperation with American, European and Arab world leaders to promote Israel’s initiative to demilitarize Hamas and “make that a reality.”

The finance minister argued that a regional conference “can also provide the framework for a wider diplomatic horizon which will take advantage of the changes in the region to the mutual benefit of Israel and the Arab world.”

Lapid’s remarks came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a “new diplomatic horizon” in the wake of the campaign. On Saturday, Netanyahu said in a Channel 2 interview: “There is a not-insignificant number of nations which see the threats around us as threats to them [as well]. As a result. they are treating Israel not as an enemy but as a potential partner.

“Whether this partnership, in the face of dangers, will also lead to partnership on opportunities is something we will have to look into soberly and responsibly.”

Speaking to the need, shared by Israel and relatively moderate Arab and Muslim states, to combat rising Islamist forces in the region, such as the Islamic State, Netanyahu cautiously said that “there may be a basis for new partnerships, and these partnerships can create opportunities — both security-related and diplomacy-related.”

On Sunday, Lapid warned that should Israel miss the current diplomatic opportunity, it would be “the beginning of the countdown to the next round of fire.”

Alongside demilitarization, Lapid added, “We must return the Palestinian Authority to the border crossings, where they belong.”

The demilitarization initiative has received international backing, including by the US and EU, but Hamas has repeatedly said it will never put down its “sacred” weapons.

Seeking to relieve concerns about the cost of the campaign and the consequent across-the-board budget cuts, Lapid said on Sunday that the 50-day operation was costly, but would nonetheless be covered by the annual budget.

“Despite the financial burden, we will be able to bear most of the cost of the operation within the 2014 budget. Israel’s economy is strong and it is robust. Our currency is strong. Investments are still strong,” he claimed.

Lapid pledged to assist southern residents affected most strongly by the violence, who “need to rebuild their lives and rebuild their homes.”

Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu promised to help the southern residents recover financially from the operation. The prime minister, responding to criticism from southern municipality leaders, said that in addition to the aid package to those communities within seven kilometers from the Gaza border approved by the cabinet, similar initiatives were set to be presented in the coming month.

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