Netanyahu Mulls Ending Some IDF Operations in West Bank

PM in consultations with senior ministers to win backing for bid to open face-to-face talks with Mahmoud Abbas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to embark on a series of meetings with the forum of seven senior ministers in an effort to agree on a package of confidence-building measures aimed at convincing Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to agree to direct negotiations with Israel.

Among the measures being considered, following U.S. and Palestinian requests, will be an end to IDF operations in a number of Palestinian cities in the West Bank.

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The confidence-building measures have the strong support of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor, and are partially backed by Vice Premier Moshe Ya'alon. However, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is opposed to any further goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians before the start of direct talks.

"We will not agree to any further payments," Lieberman said during a meeting with Finland's President Tarja Halonen last Wednesday.

During the meeting between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday at the White House, the American leader stressed that in addition to administration pressure on the Palestinians to agree to direct talks, the Israeli leader must prepare a package of measures that would broaden the presence of PA organs in the West Bank. Obama noted during the meeting that Netanyahu had promised confidence-building measures toward the Palestinians after the Ramat Shlomo crisis in March, however, he did not provide any.

"Talk is not enough, acts are also needed," Obama told Netanyahu.

The prime minister promised that such steps would be undertaken in the days or weeks ahead, and said so publicly during a press conference.

Following the meeting with the U.S. president, negotiations began between Israeli and American officials on a package of measures. On Tuesday, Netanyahu met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington and then with Special Envoy George Mitchell and his aides. On Thursday morning, Mitchell and his aides visited Netanyahu at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York, to continue talks on a package of measures for the Palestinians.

All gestures of goodwill by Israel to date have been meant to bolster the government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank and provide the PA with more authority in the area of security.

Senior Israeli officials say that the next package of measures will include the following:

1. Netanyahu is looking into the possibility of completely ending, or minimizing entirely the activities of the IDF in Palestinian cities in the West Bank. The U.S. administration and the PA have described this issue as critical. The aim is to enable Palestinian security forces to operate in Ramallah, Tul Karm, Jericho, Bethlehem, Salafit and Qalqilyah throughout the day without IDF interference.

2. Israel will enable the Palestinian police to broaden its activities beyond Area A, which is under PA security control. They would be allowed to set up six new police stations in Area B, where the PA is currently responsible only for civilian affairs, and possibly also have some authority over civilian matters in Area C.

3. Israel will lift more road blocks in the West Bank.

4. Israel will transfer to Palestinian control a portion of land that is currently in Area C, under full Israeli control, in order to build a road connecting Ramallah and a new city currently in the planning stage, Rawabi.

In talks with the Americans, Israel demanded that the PA must also carry out confidence-building measures ahead of direct talks. Obama accepted Israel's argument partially, and would like to see an end of the anti-Israeli campaign on the diplomatic front that the PA is conducting at the UN and the International Court in the Hague.

It is still unclear what the Palestinian view of the package of measures is, and whether they will agree to direct talks as a result of these. At the PM's bureau, as well as the White House, the assessment is that a substantive package of measures will serve as a catalyst for direct talks in several weeks.