In reversal, Israel's new government engages with Palestinian authority

Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) - One night last month, a top Israeli minister travelled the winding roads of the occupied West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority.

The meeting between Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Abbas at the octogenarian Palestinian leader's private residence lasted only about 90 minutes, but it immediately made waves in Israel and the West Bank.

It was the first time in more than seven years that a senior Israeli minister was known to have met with Abbas. Israel's previous government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had denigrated Abbas as an intransigent inciter of violence and never met with him.

The August meeting is the most prominent piece of evidence of a new, more cooperative approach to dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which senior members of Israel's new government see as a bulwark against the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Since the government took office in June, other ministers have met with their Palestinian counterparts, and Israeli officials said they were taking an array of concrete steps to benefit Palestinians economically, increase security cooperation and to change some policies that had been denounced as discriminatory.

But the budding entente has clear limits, given that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ruled out the possibility of peace talks and the creation of a Palestinian state.

Still, the policy represents a major shift from the recent Netanyahu years, when the government frequently undermined the Palestinian Authority and threatened to annex large parts of the West Bank, leading the authority to break off security cooperation with Israel.

In addition to the Gantz-Abbas meeting, two government ministers and President Isaac Herzog have spoken to Abbas by phone, and at least five ministers have met with senior Palestinian officials.

The government is also taking a host of practical steps that are likely to improve the lives of many Palestinians.

It has agreed to grant residency to thousands of family members of Palestinians in the West Bank who have lived in limbo without any formal legal status.

Last month, Israel moved to approve the construction of about 1,000 new Palestinian housing units in an Israeli-controlled section of the occupied West Bank.

The government lent the authority US$156 million to help it through a financial crunch, and it has increased by 15,000 the quota of Palestinian labourers allowed to work in Israel.

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