The period between Christmas and New Year witnessed the first talks between a senior Israeli official and the Palestinian president in Israel since 2010.
- Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz hosted Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin on 28 December, marking the first time the Palestinian leader held talks with a senior Israeli official in Israel since 2010.
- The meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, saw the two leaders “emphasise the shared interest in strengthening security cooperation, preserving security stability, and preventing terrorism and violence”.
- Gantz also made clear his intention to continue the ‘confidence-building measures’ to improve ties with the PA, which he has spearheaded since the coalition government was inaugurated in June.
- Abbas reportedly made clear his concerns around violence erupting in Jerusalem, particularly over the Temple Mount. He expressed fears that “unstoppable” escalations could be the result should the status quo at the holy site be altered.
- A PA spokesperson said that the meeting also “dealt with the importance of creating a political horizon that leads to a political solution”, amid a rise in Palestinian terror attacks and settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.
- The meeting was the second between the two men, following a phone call in July and in-person meeting in Ramallah in August. This represents the first high-level contact between senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders in over a decade.
- Following the meeting, Gantz announced a series of further ‘confidence-building measures’ to strengthen the PA, including a $32 million loan and new identity cards for 9,500 undocumented Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
- Other measures are also reportedly under consideration, including lowering fees for purchasing fuel and a pilot program to allow shipping containers to enter the West Bank from Jordan.
The world reacts
The international community welcomed the renewed contact between senior Israeli officials and the PA. Senior representatives of the US, EU, UN and a number of countries made clear their support for the meeting and hopes for continued progress in 2022. A US State Department spokesman said that the Biden administration was “very pleased” by the meeting and expressed a hope that “confidence-building measures will accelerate momentum to further advance freedom, security and prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis alike in 2022”. Meanwhile, the EU described the meeting as “necessary and inherently positive” and the UN called it a “timely and encouraging step”. Germany’s Foreign office similarly expressed its hope to “see more on this path, which Germany is ready to support” in 2022.
Can’t please everyone
International celebration of the meeting was shared by everyone in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, however.
- More hawkish members of Israel’s governing coalition reportedly expressed their opposition, with prime minister Naftali Bennett himself having privately criticised Gantz’s intention to hold the meeting and expressing resentment about the hosting of Abbas. Despite this, Bennett publicly insisted that the meeting and its location had received his “full approval” as prime minister.
- Other right-wing ministers, including housing minister Ze’ev Elkin, similarly expressed scepticism, saying that “I wouldn’t have invited to my home someone who pays salaries to murders of Israelis”.
- The opposition Likud party, still led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined in criticism of the meeting, characterising Israel’s coalition government as an “Israeli-Palestinian government” which is “returning Abbas and the Palestinians to centre stage”, warning that “it is only a matter of time until there are dangerous concessions to the Palestinians”.
- This was echoed by the far-right Religious Zionism party, which warned of a return to the 1990s Oslo Accords process with the Palestinians.
- The meeting was also slammed by the Hamas terror group as “reprehensible and condemnable”, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007.
- Gantz has dismissed criticism from the opposition and from his coalition partners, saying that “only someone who is responsible for sending soldiers into battle knows how deep the obligation to prevent it is. This is how I have always acted, and this is how I will continue to act”.
Standing up for two states
By contrast, Gantz’s left-wing and centrist coalition partners welcomed the meeting. Foreign minister Yair Lapid described the meeting as “important for both Israel’s security and its international status”, pointing to “security and civilian coordination with the PA” as “essential to Israel’s security and is being led responsibly and professionally by the defence minister”. Health minister and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz welcomed the move, as did Labor MK Emilie Moatti, who congratulated how Gantz had “strengthened the moderates and made the extremists irrelevant” both on the Israeli and Palestinian sides. This followed an interview by Labor leader Merav Michaeli with the Times of Israel, in which she reaffirmed her party’s commitment to a two state solution and committed to work towards that as part of the governing coalition.
Look to the future now
Despite criticism from the usual suspects, it is clear that this meeting between Gantz and Abbas is unlikely to be the last.
- In pushing back against criticism from the right, Gantz has vowed to continue meeting with Abbas: “I was disappointed by cabinet minister who preferred to speak from a political position at the expense of security needs. Behind closed doors, they sound different”, he said.
- “For me, whenever the political interest runs into the security interest, security must always prevail”, he continued.
- Gantz added that “the need to maintain Israel’s security” was his main focus of meetings with Abbas, “and this is the reason I will continue to meet with him and other elements in the region with whom discourse helps our stability, security and interests”.
- Furthermore, foreign minister Yair Lapid has made clear his openness to meeting with Abbas too in the right circumstances. “It’s not on the agenda, but I wont rule it out”, he said in a briefing with Israeli media.
- However, Lapid’s endorsement was tempered. “There is no justification at this stage”, he insisted, while also making clear that any such talks with would deal with a diplomatic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, as the current government’s policy of not holding final-status negotiations with the PA will remain in place when he becomes prime minister in August 2023.
What happens next
As long as Israel’s coalition government lasts, the new ‘confidence-building’ policies towards the Palestinian Authority is likely to continue. To that end, meetings with president Abbas may become more common – a dramatic departure after a decade of frozen relations.