Opposition MK holds rare meeting with Palestinian officials in Ramallah

Labor’s Gilad Kariv holds first public sit-down with PA by a Jewish Israeli lawmaker in over a year to promote dialogue and advance ‘alternative vision’ distinct from government’s

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Labor MK Gilad Kariv at a Constitution Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 29, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Labor MK Gilad Kariv at a Constitution Committee meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 29, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Labor lawmaker Gilad Kariv met with high-ranking officials from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank Tuesday, the first such publicly disclosed contact between a Jewish MK and the Ramallah government in over a year.

The meeting was facilitated by the left-wing Geneva Initiative group and other representatives of Palestinian civil society, including the Ramallah-based Palestinian Coalition for Peace, according to those involved.

The main purpose of the get-together was to “revive dialogue between Israeli politicians and the moderate components of the Palestinian political leadership with a view to formulate an alternative vision to the current reality of annexation [of the West Bank] that the Netanyahu government is dragging Israel into,” a spokesperson for Kariv, an opposition MK, told the Times of Israel.

Palestinian officials were silent on the meeting, reflecting a diminished appetite in Ramallah for being seen as cooperating with Israel as the PA faces down expanding settlement activity and internal challenges to its hold on northern West Bank cities.

The talks touched on a number of topics, mainly how to continue and strengthen security cooperation between Israel and the PA, and how to advance the idea of the two-state solution in the current political climate.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly vowed to cut off a security coordination mechanism with Israel, but cooperation has continued to some degree, in part because of the benefits the PA enjoys from the relationship by helping fend off threats from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups.

It has also faced US and Israeli pressure to maintain it, with all three viewing the coordination as a key element helping to tamp down terror activity and promote stability in the West Bank.

Kariv, who heads the Knesset’s caucus for the advancement of the two-state solution and the renewal of diplomatic negotiations, also raised concerns by the Israeli public about terror attacks against civilians, and the PA’s payments to terrorists held in Israeli jails, his spokesperson said.

File: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping (not pictured) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 14, 2023. (Jade GAO / POOL / AFP)

Israel subtracts millions of shekels a year in customs money it collects on behalf of the PA to match the sum the authority pays to the families of Palestinians guilty of crimes against Israel’s national security, but the measure has not deterred Ramallah from continuing with the disbursements.

Kariv entered the West Bank city with prior authorization from the IDF and was escorted throughout his time in Ramallah by Palestinian security forces, his spokesperson said. No official picture was released after the meeting, due to the refusal by the Palestinian officials present to be identified.

Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive governments have largely avoided contact with Ramallah except on technical matters or in multilateral forums. Ties have soured even further under Netanyahu’s current government, thought to be the most hardline yet.

Officials from the PA and Fatah reiterated that the Palestinian leadership, and President Mahmoud Abbas himself, are always interested in talking with Israelis, according to Gadi Baltiansky, director general of the Tel Aviv-based Geneva Initiative for Israel.

They expressed their frustration with the current Israeli government — particularly its more radical members such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — which has demonstrated it is no “partner for peace,” Baltiansky said.

Kariv, the Knesset’s first Reform rabbi, also discussed religious sites with his interlocutors, with both sides highlighting the importance of preserving access to holy sites located in the areas administered by the other, according to his office.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv holds a Torah scroll as he marches to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 22, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Kariv’s Palestinian counterpart highlighted the despair among large parts of the Palestinian public for the current stalemate in political negotiations, Israeli settlers’ violence against Palestinians, and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which are leading to a creeping annexation of the region and eroding hopes for an independent Palestinian state, according to Baltiansky.

Palestinian officials said the rhetoric and actions of the Israeli government have been pushing many Palestinians, particularly young ones, to adopt more extremist views, Baltiansky said.

He noted that the Geneva Initiative, which has facilitated meetings between thousands of Israelis and Palestinians from civil society over the years, is now making an effort to upgrade the dialogue from the civilian to the political level. More meetings between Knesset members and PA officials are to be expected in the future, he said.

The last visit by a top-ranking Israeli official to Ramallah was by Benny Gantz, then defense minister, who met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in July 2022 to discuss security coordination ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and the West Bank. The two politicians had previously met in August 2021, the first high-level face-to-face talks between the Israeli and Palestinian sides in over a decade.

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