Abe Selig , THE JERUSALEM POST
Israel is ready and willing to hold immediate negotiations with the Palestinians, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Binyamin Ben-Eliezer told a group of more than a dozen Arab reporters, the bulk of them Palestinian, during a unique press conference held in east Jerusalem on Wednesday.
"We are ready to sit down tomorrow morning if you are," the former Labor party chairman told the group. "Right now there is an historic opportunity in that the prime minister of Israel, who was elected by the right-wing, has taken two unprecedented steps - he's recognized the need for a Palestinian state and he has frozen settlement construction. In my opinion, he's the only one who is strong enough to arrive at a [comprehensive peace] settlement.
"We've wasted the last 43 years," Ben-Eliezer continued. "But whether we like it or not, we're going to have to live together for the next thousand."
The press conference, which was organized by the Arab media division of The Israel Project - a non-profit organization which helps educate the press and the public about Israel - was the first of its kind featuring both Palestinian reporters and an Israeli cabinet minister.
"There are 350 million Arabs worldwide and their opinions are formed by what they hear, see and read in the Arab media," The Israel Project's Executive Director, Marcus Sheff told The Jerusalem Post after the meeting.
"We know that it's extremely important for us to communicate with them, and this was a great opportunity to do that, featuring a minister with a background like Ben-Eliezer's - and who speaks Arabic no less," he said.
The reporters themselves seemed keen to have direct access to an Israeli minister, and didn't shy away from asking tough questions.
Some spoke to Ben-Eliezer about the situation in the Gaza Strip, while others brought up ongoing tensions in east Jerusalem.
"These are all problems that can be solved at the negotiating table," Ben-Eliezer told them. "Which is why it's so important that we start talking. Everything is negotiable, and if Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is willing to sit and talk, and come up with some results, maybe for the first time, everyone will be surprised."
Other issues broached by Ben-Eliezer were Sunni-Shi'ite relations in the broader Arab world, the split between Hamas and Fatah, peace negotiations with Syria and the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
"Iran is an issue that the entire Middle East will have to deal with, sooner or later," Ben-Eliezer said. "I recently met with [Egyptian Intelligence chief Omar] Suleiman and told him exactly this. I also told him that the sooner Egypt gets involved with the issue, the better."
While the press conference was held in English, Ben-Eliezer, who left Basra, Iraq for Israel when he was 15 years-old, did field a number of the reporters' questions in Arabic and even replied to some of them in his mother-tongue.
Overall, the meeting was cordial and the minister was even able to draw a few laughs from his audience.
But the main point of Ben-Eliezer's remarks was the need to return to the negotiating table and find a middle ground. "What we need are strong leaders," Ben-Eliezer said. "[Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat was strong, and [Jordanian King] Hussein was strong," he said. "That's why we were able to make agreements. We need a strong [Palestinian] leader who is willing to do the same, because we are two peoples who want to live on the same land, and I think we can find solutions for everything."