The highest-level meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in over a decade took place last week, and was followed by the announcement of a series of confidence-building measures.
- Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, met the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah last Sunday.
- “I came to the meeting to build trust and safeguard the interests of the State of Israel and to strengthen our important ties with the Palestinian Authority,” Gantz said following the meeting. He said the meeting had discussed “security-policy, civilian and economic issues, including “shaping the security and economic situations in the West Bank and in Gaza”. Gantz added that he had told Abbas that “Israel seeks to take measures that will strengthen the PA’s economy.”
- A statement from senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh, Ramallah’s chief liaison to Israel, said: “President Mahmoud Abbas met this evening in Ramallah with Mr Benny Gantz, where they discussed all aspects of Palestinian-Israeli relations.”
- The meeting included two rounds of discussions. The first was attended by Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Ghassan Alian, PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj and al-Sheikh. Gantz and Abbas also met privately.
- Gantz faced criticism from elements of the Israeli right, including parties from within the ruling coalition.
- Following the meeting, Israel announced a loan for the economically battered PA, a boost to the number of permits for Palestinian building projects in areas of the West Bank still under full Israeli control, and a big increase in the number of Palestinians able to work in Israel. Relief measures for Gaza and a joint effort to tackle the issue of undocumented foreign nationals married to Palestinians have also been announced.
- The meeting comes as Israel also seeks to improve relations with neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.
The last high-level meeting between Abbas and Israeli ministers took place in 2010 when the president met with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Strained relations between Israel and the PA under Netanyahu were evident in the fact that the two men last communicated by phone in 2017. In mid-July, Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party, and Abbas held a phone call. Public security minister Omar Barlev, a Labor member of the government, has subsequently met with Abbas. Other Israeli ministers and their PA counterparts have also held meetings over the summer. In July, Abbas called Israel’s new president, former Labor leader Isaac Herzog, to congratulate him on his election.
“Shrink the conflict”
The meeting marks a potentially important step in the new Israeli government’s apparent efforts to “shrink the conflict” by strengthening the PA and improving the lives of ordinary Palestinians.
- Sharp ideological divisions between the left and right wings of the “unity government” make dramatic progress on a renewed political process highly unlikely, observers suggest.
- While Naftali Bennett approved the meeting, sources close to the right-wing prime minister also attempted to downplay the significance of Gantz’s visit to Ramallah, suggesting: “This is a meeting that dealt with joint, everyday issues between the security establishment and the Palestinian Authority,” the source said. “There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be.”
- On Friday, Bennett also ruled out meeting with Abbas, citing the PA president’s decision to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court earlier this year.
- However, the prime minister reportedly told US Jewish leaders he wanted to escape the “dichotomy where either you go all at it with a Palestinian state or you do nothing,” saying he wanted to “reduce the scope of friction” with the Palestinians.
- “Bennett’s reaction has shown his need to reassure the right-wing members of his coalition that he is not giving any political concessions to the Palestinians,” wrote Axios’ Barak Ravid. “On the other hand, Bennett is allowing the left-wing members of his coalition to take steps to improve the atmosphere with the Palestinians and promote civilian and economic initiatives in the West Bank.”
An unrepentant Gantz brushed off attacks from Israeli right-wingers for meeting with Abbas. “Neither we nor the Palestinians are going anywhere tomorrow morning,” he told reporters at a briefing. Later, Gantz attacked his critics on Israeli television, suggesting: “The public needs to understand that we are operating in a complicated reality. We have good relations with the Palestinian Authority and there are problems of terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza. We want to work forcefully against extremists and strengthen as much as possible the moderates. Whoever thinks that this is a simple formula to manage is mistaken,” Gantz added. “It is not simple. It is complicated.” “The strategic relations and security ties of the State of Israel should be looked at from a higher vantage point than some headline on Twitter or report from someone from somewhere,” the defence minister argued.
Following Gantz’s meeting with Abbas, Israel offered a number of practical measures designed to bolster the PA and improve everyday life for Palestinians.
- The PA’s budget has taken a dramatic hit during the pandemic after the West Bank’s economy contracted by 11.5 percent during 2020. The PA’s parlous finances have also been worsened by cuts in aid from Arab states and the international community. Israel is to loan the PA approximately $155m, paying itself back next summer from tax revenues collected on Ramallah’s behalf which have been frozen due to the PA’s policy of paying salaries to terrorists.
- Israel is also to allow an additional 16,000 Palestinians to work in Israel. It will also approve more Palestinian building projects in Area C, a part of the West Bank which remains under full IDF military and civilian control.
- Israel also plans to legalise the position of thousands of undocumented foreign nationals married to Palestinian spouses. Five thousand cases, the PA says, will be worked through with Israel as the first step to addressing a huge backlog which has built up over the last 12 years.
Gaza goodwill gestures…
Israel last week also announced a number of measures designed to ease conditions in Gaza. Despite continuing rioting along the border, the coastal enclave’s fishing zone was expanded to 15 nautical miles – the furthest distance Israel has permitted since Hamas seized control in a bloody 2007 coup. More goods and construction materials will be able to enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, and an additional 5m cubic meters of water will be allowed into the Strip. In addition to the 2,000 Gazans already permitted to enter Israel, 5,000 more workers will also be allowed in.
… and Hamas’ response
Terror groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad panned Abbas for meeting with Gantz. “President Mahmoud Abbas’s meeting with Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz is a stab in the back of the Palestinian people and what they have sacrificed. It is a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs,” said Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou in a statement. A second Hamas spokesperson, Hazim Qasim, attacked Abbas for “encouraging Arab countries to normalise [relations] with Israel” by meeting the senior Israeli official. “This weakens the Palestinian stance that rejects normalisation,” Qasim said.
Reaching out to Jordan and Egypt
Since Yair Lapid took the helm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June, Israel has sought to repair relations with Jordan and Egypt which the Netanyahu government had left in a weakened state.
- Last week, Herzog travelled to Amman where he met King Abdullah II. The two heads of state discussed possible collaboration on energy, the economy, agriculture and the climate crisis.
- The president lavished praise on Israel’s neighbour and its monarch, saying: “Jordan is a very important country. I greatly respect King Abdullah, a great leader and a significant regional player.”
- At his first meeting with his Jordanian counterpart in July, Lapid, who is due to serve as prime minister during the second half of the government’s term, concluded a number of agreements. Among them, it was agreed that Jordan would increase its export potential to the West Bank from some $160m to about $700m. The move is in line with Oslo Accord’s Paris Protocol which provides the economic framework for trade between Israel and the PA. Israel also said it would help ease Jordan’s water shortage, selling it an additional 50m cubic meters.
- Bennett, who secretly met with Abdullah shortly after taking office, is due to meet with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in the coming weeks, Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, reported last week. Bennett’s planned meeting will be the first public visit to Egypt by an Israeli prime minister in 10 years.
- The Egyptian president called Herzog on Sunday to offer his best wishes for the Jewish new year. Sissi is reportedly planning an effort to jump-start talks between Israel and the Palestinians, as part of an initiative coordinated with other Arab and European states. Sissi hosted a trilateral summit in Cairo last week with Abbas and King Abdullah.
What happens next
Despite the ideological tensions within the Israeli government, better relations with the PA may be on the cards.
“Bennett’s talk of shrinking the conflict and Gantz’s explicit statement following the meeting that the PA must be strengthened and that doing so is the only way to weaken Hamas, we see a genuine transition away from Netanyahu’s approach,” wrote Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum last week. “Taking steps to strengthen the PA and publicly acknowledge its importance to Israel, and even treating it more like a partner than a pariah, is the opposite tack than the one taken by Netanyahu, and it hopefully signals the possibility of progress building upon progress.”