'Abraham Accords are irreversible'

As he sums up term, Ashkenazi says Israel will strengthen PA against Hamas

Netanyahu supports Palestinian Authority officials taking part in Gaza reconstruction; FM says US committed to expanding Abraham Accords

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi attends the annual Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, February February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi attends the annual Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, February February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel will make efforts to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank while weakening Hamas, outgoing Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a press briefing on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backs the decision, government sources told The Times of Israel, which includes giving the PA a more meaningful role in the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip following the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May.

Ashkenazi said government working groups are fleshing out the details of the approach, in close contact with the US administration.

He made the remarks as he summed up his 13-month tenure as Israel’s top diplomat.

In May, The New York Times reported that the United States was planning to head a multi-billion dollar international effort to assist in rebuilding Gaza following the fighting. The goal, it said, is partly to “bring pressure, through promises of financial support, on Hamas not to resume fighting.”

The reported aid plan, likely to be coordinated through the United Nations, would depend on Hamas not resuming its rocket fire toward Israel.

Ashkenazi expressed satisfaction with the state of the relationship between Israel and the Biden administration. “The ties are daily and regular,” he said.

He also said that the US has not taken steps to reverse course on any of the Trump administration’s policies toward Israel.

“I do not know of any decision that Trump decided about Israel that was canceled – not Jerusalem, not the embassy, not the Abraham Accords,” he said.

L-R: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House on September 15, 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

The Biden administration did announce in May that it would reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem that had historically served as the de facto representative to the Palestinians.

In 2019, the Trump administration merged the 175-year-old Jerusalem consulate into the US embassy in the city, which had been transferred from Tel Aviv a year earlier. Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street in downtown West Jerusalem continued their same jobs, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel.

Ashkenazi said he viewed that decision as part of the administration’s policies toward the Palestinians, not toward Israel.

Ashkenazi, who preceded Benny Gantz as IDF chief of staff, entered politics ahead of the April 2019 elections, joining the nascent Blue and White alliance of centrist parties. He stuck with Gantz after the Blue and White leader decided to form a coalition with Netanyahu in 2020, leading to the breakup of the party’s alliance with Yesh Atid, and became foreign minister last May when the government was sworn in.

In December Ashkenazi announced he would be leaving the Blue and White party while staying on as foreign minister as long as Gantz desired or until the formation of a new government. A fresh government is now slated to take office on Sunday, with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid set to take over the Foreign Ministry.

Foreign Ministry sources said Tuesday that the ministry’s goals in its relationship with the US during Ashkenazi’s tenure were managing the transition from Trump to Biden, maintaining an ongoing and transparent dialogue, building on the Abraham Accords, creating joint working groups on issues of mutual concern, and cooperation on regional development and climate change.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken arrive for a joint press conference in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021, days after an Egypt-brokered truce halted fighting between the Jewish state and the Gaza Strip’s rulers Hamas. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The foreign minister also said that the new US administration is fully behind the Abraham Accords framework and that he expects Biden to appoint a special envoy to work on moving the ties forward with countries that have not yet recognized Israel.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is the leading candidate for the role, according to The Washington Post.

In 2020, the Trump administration mediated normalization agreements between Israel and Sudan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from formalizing ties with Israel but has given the green light to overflights from the Jewish state, in an implicit sign of approval.

Former US ambassador Dan Shapiro speaks to David Horovitz at a Times of Israel event in Jerusalem, July 2, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Ashkenazi revealed that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told him that the Biden administration “embraces the Abraham Accords and is eager to expand [them].”

“This is a different kind of peace,” Ashkenazi said, adding that the relationships were speeding along in government-to-government, business-to-business and people-to-people ties. He called the new relationships “irreversible.”

Ashkenazi also pointed to a tax treaty Israel signed with the UAE last week, noting that the agreement had not been affected by the fighting between Israel and Hamas.

The two countries have already signed several treaties, including on direct flights and visa-free travel, investment protection, science, and technology.

Israel has already signed 29 agreements with the four countries with which it made deals over the last year, the Foreign Ministry said, and another 29 are in the works.

The ministry also opened new diplomatic offices in the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

Tariq Bin Hendi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office, signs a cooperation agreement virtually with David Leffler, director-general of the Ministry of Economy and Industry of Israel (on screen). (Courtesy)

Ashkenazi recognized that there was still much work to be done.

“With Morocco we are not at the same level of relations we are with the UAE and Bahrain,” he said.

He stressed that the existing peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan remain core strategic assets for Israel. “Jordan is stable, and Egypt is on the right side in terms of stability, security, ” he said.

“At the same time, we haven’t taken full advantage of the peace with them… We still have a lot of work to do on it.”

Diplomatic progress in the shadow of COVID-19

Ashkenazi pointed to significant achievements in Israel’s diplomatic efforts against Iran and its allies in the region.

Since May 2020, nine countries — Austria, Kosovo, Lithuania, Latvia, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Estonia and Guatemala — designated the armed Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

In this December 13, 2018 photo, UN peacekeepers hold their flag while standing next to Hezbollah and Lebanese flags, at the site where Israeli excavators are working, near the southern border village of Mays al-Jabal, Lebanon. (AP/Hussein Malla)

He also argued that Israel maintained an intensive and productive dialogue with the six world powers who signed the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Talks on Iran and the US rejoining the JCPOA agreement are ongoing in Vienna.

Ashkenazi asserted that Israel’s international standing improved over the last year, despite last month’s conflict with Hamas. He emphasized the 44 visits to Israel by senior officials, including eight visits by senior US officials and 26 by European leaders and top diplomats.

The foreign minister noted conversations European nations held with Israel over the past year moved from disagreements over plans to annex the Jordan Valley — which he and Gantz opposed — to more productive talks on regional normalization and Israeli participation in European scientific and diplomatic initiatives.

Israel is expected to join Horizon Europe, the EU’s seven-year research and innovation program, by the end of 2021.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (left) meets with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Jerusalem on August 25, 2020. (Courtesy/Miri Shimonovich)

Israel made progress in its ties with African nations as well, according to Ashkenazi. He pointed out more favorable votes by African nations on issues pertaining to Israel in international forums, and positive reactions to Israel’s attempts to join the African Union as an observer state.

The COVID-19 pandemic offered unique challenges but also opportunities for Israeli diplomacy, said Ashkenazi. The Foreign Ministry had to assist citizens trying to make their way back to Israel and assisted Jews making aliyah over the past year. It also invested significant resources in bringing Israeli diplomats back to be vaccinated and in vaccinating foreign diplomats in Israel.

Israel flew personal protection equipment and other medical gear into the country, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. As it gained control over the outbreak and became a world leader in vaccinations, the Foreign Ministry led the “vaccination diplomacy” effort, in which friendly nations received excess doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Israel also flew medical equipment to India and other nations struggling with outbreaks.

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