Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh said Tuesday that his meeting this week with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid was positive and “opened the door” to expanding diplomatic talks, adding that they agreed to hold follow-up meetings.
The meeting took place in Lapid’s Tel Aviv home on Sunday night and went on for about an hour. The two had met before, but not since Lapid became Foreign Minister.
The meeting was the latest in a string of encounters between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Al-Sheikh is one of PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s closest advisers and directs the PA office responsible for handling ties with Israel. A longtime senior Fatah official, al-Sheikh was promoted last week to fill a seat on the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee.
He said Tuesday that the meeting had boosted ties between Israel and the PA.
“We want this door to stay open to move forward in the future toward renewing [peace] negotiations,” al-Sheikh told Israel’s Walla news.
“It was a positive meeting that we can build on and we agreed to hold more meetings,” he said.
He said he conveyed a message to Lapid from PA President Mahmoud Abbas that the Palestinian leader believes in a diplomatic solution.
“I made clear to Minister Lapid that it’s important that there be a diplomatic horizon between us and Israelis,” he said. “We talk about security, the economy and civilian matters but it’s important that there be a political umbrella over everything we do. Without that, the situation will be very tough.”
Al-Sheikh said Lapid emphasized to him that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was aware of the meeting and had no objections, and that Lapid supported Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s moves to strengthen ties with the PA.
“We also discussed several additional diplomatic issues but I don’t want to get into details,” he said.
“It’s important to remember that Israel’s problem is not with Mauritania, it’s with the Palestinians. If you’re not talking to the Palestinians, then who are you talking to? Negotiations take place with those you do not agree with,” he said.
Al-Sheikh said he raised the issue of rising violence by settler extremists against Palestinians in the West Bank, while Lapid raised the issue of PA efforts to have Israel prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.
Al-Sheikh announced that the meeting had taken place on Sunday. Lapid’s office did not deny the reports, but declined to comment on the meeting.
“I met this evening with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and we discussed several political and bilateral issues. I highlighted the need for a political horizon between the two parties based on international law,” al-Sheikh said in a statement.
The move was seen by some observers as preparing al-Sheikh to be the next chief negotiator with Israel, a position vacant since the death of former senior PLO official Saeb Erekat.
Under the previous government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, senior Israeli and Palestinians officials rarely met. But the current coalition is made up of centrist and left-wing, as well as right-wing, politicians who have established contacts with their PA counterparts.
Gantz has met with Abbas twice, including in the former’s residence in Rosh Ha’ayin. Both meetings were followed by Israeli announcements fulfilling some Palestinian requests.
Bennett is opposed to renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and has refused to meet with Abbas.
Nevertheless, his government has pledged to prop up the PA and strengthen its ailing economy, with Gantz spearheading the move.
Lapid is set to replace Bennett as prime minister in 2023, according to coalition agreements. In comments to reporters in early January, however, Lapid stressed that he would not dramatically alter the current policy toward Ramallah.
“Even after [I rotate in as prime minister], the coalition will be obligated to already-reached agreements, and I will abide by every agreement that I made with my partners,” Lapid said, adding that part of his agreement with Bennett was that neither would hold peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Lapid did stress, however, that he would consider meeting with Abbas.
After his Sunday meeting with Lapid, al-Sheikh said that 500 undocumented West Bank residents would receive Palestinian identification cards. That appeared to be a continuation of a previous pledge by Gantz, rather than a new initiative.
Hamas slammed the meeting as a sign of “the depths to which the Palestinian Authority has fallen.”
“The persistence of these absurd meetings with the occupation’s leadership is a betrayal of the sacrifices of our people. These shameful meetings must end immediately,” said the terror group’s spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou.