Netanyahu offers to come to … Ramallah

In public remarks after his meeting with U.S. Special Envoy George Mitchell this evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu offered to come to Ramallah if the Palestinian side were ready for direct negotiations.

It would be a first.

Netanyahu told Mitchell, in front of the cameras: “I call on President Abu Mazen to come to Jerusalem. I’m prepared to go to Ramallah. I think that this is the only way that we’ll solve the intricate problems that we’re discussing between us”… This statement was sent around by email from the Israeli Government Press Office, part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mitchell is currently conducting a fourth or fifth round indirect, or “proximity” talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But Ramallah is Area A (a category dating from the Oslo Accords, designating where Palestinian Authority security forces have nominal control) — and Israelis are barred from entering Area A…

There are big red signs around the West Bank [ sometimes in the wrong places, actually, such as just after passing through Qalandia Checkpoint, on the way to Ramallah, where there are areas that are still legally Jerusalem by Israeli definition, such as Qafr Aqab and Semiramis, and that still must pay Jerusalem taxes, though they get virtually no services], warning Israelis — who can otherwise roam freely, say, to visit friends in the settlements — that they are approaching an Area A [usually a “built-up” Palestinian city — though even they can have parts which are classified Areas B or C — such as Abu Mazen’s house above Balloua…]

No Israeli can enter Area A without facing fines (5000 shekels, for endangering him/herself and the rescue services that would have to be called up if he/she calls for help or, G-d forbid, gets in trouble. There have been stories about people heading to weddings in the settlements who ended up in the middle of Qalandiya refugee camp while relying on their car’s Israeli GPS systems, which do not acknowledge either political reality or even the actual geography of the West Bank — in many areas of which the Israeli GPS simply goes blank…

Perhaps Netanyahu has been inspired by all the recent almost-irresistable media stories about cafes + malls + more in the “Tel Aviv” of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, there are still regular IDF and Border Police incursions in the West Bank — mainly at night, which is believed to be more protective to the Israeli forces on the prowl, but also during the day.

After midnight, but before dawn this morning, for example, the IDF arrested 8 “wanted” Palestinians overnight in the West Bank. The way the IDF spokespersons unit just described this on Twitter is: “Overnight, IDF forces arrested 8 wanted Palestinians suspected for terrorist activity in J + S [Judea + Samaria, meaning the West Bank] region”

These incursions happen at least several times a week, sometimes almost every night. Both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have complained about this, publicly and reportedly privately as well, for months and more.

The atmosphere is … almost indescribable, especially to people used to feeling secure in their homes and in their beds, who will not really understand the tension and terror this sows.

Netanyahu offers to go to … Ramallah.  Why not?  Everybody is: two Haaretz journalists [not Amira Hass, who has lived in Ramallah for more than a decade, since 1997 as it happens] bylined a story published today, datelined Ramallah. Actually it was part of the outreach program of the new Palestinian Presidential media advisory team at the Muqata’a — six Israeli journalists were specially invited, given lunch, allowed to see the man close-up, and ask whatever questions they wanted for three hours.

One can only imagine the security arrangements [well beyond the usual IDF waiver form they would have been required to sign]…  But, then again, the IDF and Israeli security services have reportedly long been involved in coordination of all movements — and even escorting — of President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad around the West Bank. There is, after all, the great threat of the bitter enemy, “Islamic fundamentalism”…

Actually, some Israeli journalists, but more often some well-connected Israeli analysts, have been coming to Ramallah without any fanfare [for security reasons too, let’s not forget]. And not just from the Israeli “left”, which means not Marxists but those opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but also from the right. One of the more active analysts from former Israeli diplomat Dore Gold’s Jerusalem Center for Policy Affairs told me in 2009 that he had been coming on a weekly basis for a while, and if I remember correctly he was being briefed in the Palestinian Civil Affairs office run by Fatah’s Hussein ash-Sheikh (in the same building, just a bit more than a stone’s throw from the Israeli “Civil Administration” and Military Court at Beit El, where Fatah’s Mohammed Dahlan now has the entire top floor for his own media outreach operation).

The Haaretz story, co-authored by Aluf Benn and Akiva Eldar, that is one of the products of this Palestinian media outreach invitation is published here.

In it, we learn, for example, that Abu Mazen noted, with mild reproach, that the head of Palestinian Television [who is also the Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization or PLO], Yasser Abed Rabbo, invited Netanyahu for a PALestinian TV interview but got no response.

Perhaps Netanyahu is now ready to respond?

The Jerusalem Post’s report, which called this an “apparent charm offensive aimed at the Israeli public” is here, authored by Herb Keinon.

The JPost reported that Abbas “is willing to enter direct negotiations with the Netanyahu government, as soon as he hears from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding Israel’s position on borders and security issues. Abbas, in the briefing with Israeli journalists Tuesday in Ramallah, said that originally he wanted to hear from Netanyahu whether he was willing to accept the understandings agreed upon by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert …

The JPost notes that “Abbas, who has come under pressure from the US to speak directly to the Israeli public, last spoke with the Israeli media when he gave an interview to Channel 2 at the end of April … When no answer from Netanyahu was forthcoming regarding the Olmert offer, Abbas said at Tuesday’s briefing, he sent a message through US envoy George Mitchell saying that he would suffice with an answer on only two of the issues: borders and security. ‘Answers like these are necessary to see if we are speaking the same language, and then it will be possible to continue. It is preferable that direct talks will not explode after 10 minutes, and then who knows when we will be able to renew negotiations again’, Abbas said.  Abbas said he would be willing to engage in direct negotiations with Netanyahu as soon as he received an answer”.

This apparently American-inspired Palestinian “charm offensive”, sullen though it may be at times, has been going on since the indirect or “proximity” talks presided by Mitchell have gotten well underway.

We may — or may not — be at a Sadat moment.

Abbas’ deputy as chief negotiator, Sa’eb Erekat, spoke to the INSS [Institute for National Security Studies] in Tel Aviv several weeks ago, and debated Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor in Washington more recently. In the same line, Abbas himself recently met with members of the American Jewish community in the U.S.

On all occasions, it is safe to say, the two Palestinians had considerably more rosy assessments of the encounters than did their more-distrustful Israeli counterparts.

On top of that, Abbas’ Prime Minister Fayyad is about to meet the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is the effective rule of the West Bank in the Israeli government and practice — supposedly to discuss “security” [even though there was an uproar when his er formEconomic Minister, Basim Khoury, caused a storm of criticism when he spoke to Silvan Shalom at a meeting in Tel Aviv — but that was before indirect talks began].

Fayyad is a legal permanent resident of [East] Jerusalem, of course — like the four elected Hamas-affiliated Palestinian parliamentarians who residency is about to be revoked [and they will be “deported”, unless a court intervenes].   But Fayyad is not affiliated with Hamas.  So, he could easily meet Barak in either East or West Jerusalem, or anywhere in Israel.  Alternatively, Barak could easily make arrangements to show up somewhere in Ramallah [though no doubt with a huge and very obtrusive security escort], and take in all the supposedly glittery sights…

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