Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly warned Defense Minister Benny Gantz that while he was committed to stopping violence in the West Bank, he was concerned that changes to the religious status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem could lead to an “unstoppable” escalation, Hebrew media reported Wednesday.
Abbas was hosted by Gantz on Tuesday at his home, the first time the Palestinian leader has held talks with a senior Israeli official in Israel since 2010. The meeting was Gantz and Abbas’s second since the new Israeli government was formed in June, with the first taking place in Ramallah. According to the Defense Ministry, it lasted two and a half hours; part of it was between Abbas and Gantz alone.
Reporting details from the conversation on Wednesday, both Channel 12 and 13 quoted Abbas as telling Gantz that he would not support a return to violence in the West Bank “even if a gun was held to my head.”
However, Abbas told Gantz he was concerned about violence erupting in Jerusalem, particularly surrounding the Temple Mount. Abbas told Gantz that if there was a change to religious elements on the holy site it would lead to an “unstoppable” escalation, Channel 13 reported.
The report gave no details on what changes Abbas was concerned about. However, in recent months there have been reports that Israel was quietly allowing Jewish prayer at the site, in what would appear to be a major change to the status quo that has existed at the holy site since the Jewish state captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan during 1967’s Six Day War.
The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism, as the site of the biblical Temples. It is the site of the third-holiest shrine in Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and has been a frequent flashpoint for Israeli-Arab violence.
Anxious to reduce friction with the Muslim world after capturing the holy site, and given that Orthodox sages generally counsel against ascending the Temple Mount for fear of treading on the sacred ground where the Temple’s Holy of Holies stood, Israel since 1967 allowed the Jordanian Waqf to continue to maintain religious authority atop the mount. Jews are allowed to visit under numerous restrictions, but not to pray.
In recent years, Israeli public perception of the ban on Jewish prayer has shifted. Through the fruits of a long-term concerted PR campaign calling for freedom of religion and human rights, the previously fringe Temple Mount movement is increasingly mainstreamed.
But in the face of Palestinian claims that Israel seeks to change the status quo on the Mount that have intermittently caused flareups of violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, successive Israeli governments have long maintained that Israel is committed to the status established there over the past few decades and does not intend to change the accepted practices.
During the meeting Abbas also reportedly asked Gantz to allow greater freedom of action for Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, vowing to crack down on any violence toward Israel, Channel 12 reported. He also asked for the IDF to lower its profile in the West Bank where it has been carrying out a series of raids aimed at uprooting Hamas terror cells.
Gantz meanwhile dismisses criticism from the right and within the coalition of his decision to host Abbas.
“Only someone who is responsible for sending soldiers into battle knows how deep the obligation to prevent it is,” Gantz tweets. “This is how I have always acted, and this is how I will continue to act.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett himself reportedly objected to the move, and some ministers noted that Abbas is personally leading a campaign to prosecute Gantz in the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes.
Citing Palestinian sources, the Kan public broadcaster said Gantz thanked Abbas for the PA’s role in rescuing two Israelis from Ramallah earlier this month after they lost their way and were surrounded by a Palestinian mob. Abbas reportedly added that friction must be lowered between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Abbas brought a present to Gantz and received Israeli olive oil in return, Hebrew media reported. During the meeting, Gantz’s son entered the room and Gantz said he was a soldier. Abbas commented: “I hope peace comes out of this house.”
The meeting was sharply criticized by hawkish opposition parties, as well as by right-wing members of the coalition, which spans the Israeli spectrum from hawk to dove and also includes an Islamist party, and has often made policy moves opposed by some of its constituents.
Kan reported, without citing a source, that Bennett was informed of the meeting ahead of time, and “criticized Gantz’s intention to hold the meeting, and expressed resentment about the hosting of [Abbas] in Gantz’s home.”
Bennett is opposed to renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians and has refused to meet with Abbas. Nevertheless, his government has pledged to prop up the Palestinian Authority and strengthen its ailing economy, with Gantz spearheading the move. Gantz has said he sees Abbas’s regime as the only alternative to an empowered Hamas in the West Bank.
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Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin of the coalition’s right-wing New Hope party told Radio 103FM that not all cabinet ministers had been notified ahead of time about the meeting.
“I wouldn’t have invited to my home someone who pays salaries to murderers of Israelis and also wants to put senior IDF officers in prison in The Hague, including the host himself,” he said, referring to a campaign pushed by Abbas that urges that Israeli security officials, including Gantz — a former IDF chief of staff — be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court as war criminals.
Elkin was also referring to a Palestinian Authority policy to pay monthly stipends to terror convicts in Israeli jails and the families of slain Palestinians, including those killed while committing terror attacks. While the Palestinians view the payments as a form of welfare, Israel and others note that it offers a direct incentive to carry out attacks on Israelis.
Gantz has “no leeway from the government to hold peace negotiations, and he knows it,” Elkin added.
The opposition Likud party criticized the meeting on Tuesday night, saying that “the Israeli-Palestinian government of Bennett is returning [Abbas] and the Palestinians to center stage” and warned that “it’s only a matter of time until there are dangerous concessions to the Palestinians.”
The meeting was welcomed, however, by left-wing and centrist members of the coalition.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, said the Gantz-Abbas meeting “is important for both Israel’s security and its international status. Security and civilian coordination with the PA is essential to Israel’s security and is being led responsibly and professionally by the defense minister.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of the Meretz party, tweeted that “strengthening the ties and striving for a diplomatic solution is a top interest for both nations.”
It was also welcomed by President Isaac Herzog who said that the “dialogue was positive, especially during this time of increased security challenges” in the West Bank.
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted that he was “excited” by the talks. “May this meaningful diplomacy lead to many more such confidence building measures for the New Year. It benefits us all!”
Gantz’s office announced several “confidence-building measures” following the meeting.
These include approving the inclusion of 6,000 West Bank residents and 3,500 Gaza residents on a humanitarian basis in the PA’s resident registration; advancing the transfer of NIS 100 million ($32.2 million) in tax payments; and adding 600 BMC (businessman card) approvals for senior Palestinian businesspeople, as well as 500 permits for businesspeople with such approvals to enter Israel with their vehicles, and dozens of VIP permits for PA senior officials.
Gantz and Abbas also discussed additional construction plans for Palestinian homes, the defense minister’s office said.
The current Israeli government has previously loaned the Palestinian Authority NIS 500 million ($160 million) to ease its crippling debt crisis, provided permits to undocumented Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, and increased the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel in an effort to pump the West Bank economy.
Gantz first spoke on the phone with Abbas in mid-July. The two later formally met in Ramallah in late August, marking the first such high-level contact between senior Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers in over a decade.
Abbas’s last official meeting in Israel took place in 2010 when he met then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the latter’s official residence for peace talks. The peace process has been largely moribund in the last decade with Netanyahu working to undermine Abbas and push the conflict with the Palestinians to the margins.
Abbas also traveled to Jerusalem for the 2016 funeral of Israeli statesman Shimon Peres.