Israel, Palestinians Make Progress in Talks to Limit Military Activity in West Bank Cities

Netanyahu claimed talks failed after Palestinians rejected Israel's offer, but both Israeli officials and Western diplomats now say that negotiators have resolved some of disputes.

Israeli soldiers during an operation in the West Bank city of Nablus.
AFP

Progress has been made in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over a deal that would limit Israeli army activity in Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, according to both Israeli officials and Western diplomats familiar with the talks.

The diplomatic-security cabinet will get its first briefing on the negotiations on Wednesday.

Three weeks ago, Haaretz reported that Israel and the Palestinians were conducting secret negotiations on a gradual return of full security control over West Bank cities to the PA. Israel proposed that the IDF would end all operational activity in Area A — the part of the West Bank that, according to the Oslo Accords, is supposed to be under full Palestinian control — except in urgent cases, known in Israeli parlance as ticking bombs.

On the Israeli side, the talks are being led by the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and the head of the IDF’s Central Command, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa. Their Palestinian interlocutors are Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the General Intelligence Service Majid Faraj and head of the Preventive Security Service Ziad Hab al-Rieh.

Israel has proposed that the IDF initially leave Ramallah and Jericho, and if no problems arise, it would then leave other West Bank cities. But the Palestinians rejected this idea, demanding that the IDF stop incursions into all cities in Area A. They said accepting the Israeli proposal would essentially grant a Palestinian seal of approval to IDF activity in other West Bank cities and legitimize a unilateral Israeli violation of the Oslo Accords.

The diplomatic-security cabinet was never briefed on the talks, which were conducted exclusively by IDF officers, with the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. But after Haaretz reported on the proposal, two ministers, Zeev Elkin and Naftali Bennett, objected vehemently both to the proposal itself and to the fact that the diplomatic-security cabinet was left in the dark. In an effort to pacify Elkin, Netanyahu said the panel wasn’t briefed because the Palestinians had rejected the idea, so the talks never went anywhere.

But in fact, contrary to Netanyahu’s claim, the talks have not reached a dead end. Both Israeli officials and Western diplomats said that over the past few weeks, the sides have met three times for further negotiations on the idea of reducing IDF activity in Palestinian cities. They said the negotiating teams have resolved some of the disputes and made some progress, but not yet enough to make an agreement possible.

Both Israelis and Palestinians are trying to present the talks as strictly security-oriented rather than as diplomatic negotiations.

A Palestinian official said the PA’s position is that it must resume full security control of all the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank, and it will not agree to a “Ramallah and Jericho first” model. In exchange for an end to IDF operations in these cities, he said, the Palestinians will promise to continue security coordination with Israel, but will not offer any diplomatic sweeteners, like halting Palestinian moves in UN institutions or giving up on a French proposal to convene an international conference on the Palestinian issue this summer.

Wednesday’s diplomatic-security cabinet meeting was intended to discuss the situation in the West Bank in light of the ongoing wave of Palestinian terror attacks. But the ministers will also get their first briefing on the talks with the Palestinians from Mordechai and Numa.

The IDF is working intensively to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, primarily due to fear that otherwise, the ongoing tension in the territories will eventually undermine security coordination with the PA, lead to a significant escalation of violence and possibly even result in the PA’s collapse.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said this week at a meeting with U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan that preserving security coordination with the PA is of great importance. “We work with them to prevent terror attacks,” Eisenkot said, according to a source briefed on details of the meeting. “They do good work, and we’re very pleased with the coordination we have with them.”

In an interview with journalist Ilana Dayan that aired on Channel 2 television last Thursday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas warned that without a significant reduction in IDF incursions into Palestinian cities, the PA was liable to collapse. He said he wants to preserve the security coordination with Israel, but that Netanyahu must order the IDF to end operations in these cities.

He also said he had offered to meet with Netanyahu to discuss his demand for an end to IDF activity in Area A, but Netanyahu refused. Netanyahu denied this, charging that Abbas was the one who wasn’t willing to meet.

Abbas told Dayan that since the second intifada erupted in late 2000, IDF forces had entered Area A every day, in violation of the Oslo Accords. Yet despite repeated requests by the PA and the close Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, Netanyahu still insists that IDF forces be allowed to enter Palestinian cities without restriction, he charged.

“Give me responsibility,” Abbas said in the interview. “Try me for a week — if I don’t meet my responsibilities, then come back. ... If Israel has specific intelligence information, give it to me and I’ll handle it.”

“You want me to be your employee. Your agent,” he added. “I don’t accept this. I want to do it myself.”