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Israeli finance minister holds rare West Bank meeting with Palestinian PM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s finance minister has met the Palestinian prime minister, Israeli officials said on Thursday, in a rare visit by an Israeli cabinet member to the occupied West Bank as part of a U.S. peace push.

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon gestures as he speaks at an event in Ofakim, southern Israel May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israel’s security cabinet agreed just before U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank May 22-23 on a series of measures aimed at building confidence in relations with the Palestinians.

Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads a centre-right party in Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, went to Ramallah late on Wednesday to present the proposals to Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, the officials said.

The measures include opening the Allenby Bridge border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan 24 hours a day, an increased number of building permits for Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank, and further development of industrial zones near the West Bank cities of Jenin and Hebron.

Under interim peace deals between Israel and the Palestinians, Area C - which comprises 60 percent of the occupied West Bank - is territory in which Israel maintains full security and civil control.

Youssef al-Mahmoud, a Palestinian government spokesman, said Hamdallah told Kahlon that economic measures cannot serve as a substitute for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, but U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed three years ago.

An Israeli defence official said she believed Kahlon’s visit marked the first time an Israeli cabinet minister had held an official meeting in Ramallah since 2014.

“Civil-economic steps that Israel would promote with regard to the Palestinian Authority were presented at the meeting, following the visit of the U.S. president,” an official Israeli statement said.

Trump has vowed to push for a historic peace deal between the sides, though he has not presented any details on how he plans to revive negotiations.

On his visit to the region, he met separately with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Trump described both leaders as “reaching for peace”. Many analysts, however, see little prospect of a breakthrough, citing years of deadlock over issues such as the status of Jerusalem and Israeli settlement building, as well as little diplomatic experience in the new U.S. administration.

Aditional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Tom Heneghan