Bennett says he won’t meet Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian state a ‘terrible mistake’

In round of interviews, PM says he can’t see ‘any logic’ in sitting down with PA leader, citing pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel and payment of stipends to terrorists

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett leads a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday that he sees no reason for him to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, despite a number of high-level contacts between Israel’s new government and the PA.

Bennett, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster as part of a series of interviews he gave to Israeli news outlets, cited the PA’s pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and continued payment of monthly stipends to security prisoners, including those convicted of killing Israelis.

“I don’t see any logic in meeting someone who is suing IDF soldiers at The Hague and accusing them of war crimes, and at the same time paying salaries to terrorists,” Bennett told the Kan public broadcaster. “I don’t see the logic in meeting him.”

In March, the ICC’s chief prosecutor announced that she was opening an investigation into actions committed by Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since June 13, 2014. It was Abbas’s request to The Hague that led to the opening of the probe.

Bennett told American Jewish leaders earlier this month that he won’t meet with Abbas, citing the PA chief’s decision to bring Israel before the ICC.

The off-the-record call with leaders from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations came days after Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abbas in Ramallah, in the first high-level face-to-face talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials in over a decade.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, on May 5, 2020. (Flash90)

Asked Tuesday about the meeting’s significance in terms of the new government’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Bennett reiterated his belief that no political breakthrough was possible in the near future, maintaining his long-standing position that there should not be a Palestinian state.

“I oppose a Palestinian state — I think it would be a terrible mistake,” he said. “I won’t do that.”

At the same time, Bennett said, he agreed with Gantz’s approach of maintaining ties and connections with Palestinian officials in order to maintain calm and security coordination.

But, he added, there is no current possibility of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians.

“We all understand that at the moment it’s not relevant,” he said.

Israel and the PA historically maintain security cooperation in the West Bank that both see as vital. However, security ties were downgraded last year as ties with the Palestinians soured amid a flurry of moves by then-United States president Donald Trump that appeared to favor the Israeli position. Abbas said that the ties would reinstated after US President Joe Biden took office in January.

Bennett granted interviews to all three major TV networks, as well as multiple newspapers and news sites, ahead of Yom Kippur.

Speaking to the Walla news site, the prime minister said that he knows many Israelis are angry at him over his decision to form a government with left-wing and Arab Israeli parties, but that he stands by the move.

“There are quite a few people among the public who were very disappointed by the fact that this government was created and how it was created,” Bennett said. “I hope and ask that they come with an open mind and judge me and the government by our actions.”

The newly sworn in Israeli government pose for a group photo at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2021.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett, who will rotate the premiership with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid during the government’s term, was able to form a coalition of left-wing, centrist, and right-wing parties, along with the Islamist Ra’am, largely through their common goal of ousting Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office.

The new government, which took office in June after four national elections since April 2019, is made up of eight of the 13 parties that won seats in the March 23 election: Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Yamina, New Hope, Meretz and Ra’am.

Netanyahu and his allies have regularly railed at Bennett for relying on Ra’am’s support to swear in the power-sharing government, though Likud made its own efforts to woo the Islamist party after general elections in March.

Bennett said on Tuesday that he could have passed up the opportunity to form an unlikely government that spans the political spectrum and instead gone to a fifth election, “and I know a lot of people are angry, and that’s okay, and I stand by my decision.”

Bennett, speaking to Channel 12 news, apologized for “the pain I caused” to the family of Barel Hadaria Shmueli, a Border Police officer who was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian gunman on August 21 and succumbed to his wounds just over a week later.

Border Police officer Barel Shmueli who was critically wounded in a shooting on the Gaza border, on August 21, 2021. He died of his injuries on August 30. (Border Police)

His family, along with right-wing activists and opposition lawmakers, accused the military of issuing overly restrictive rules of engagement that they claim prevented troops from keeping the rioters away from the border fence.

Shmueli’s father has suggested Bennett should resign over the incident, his mother has said that she does not trust the government or the army. The family has also rejected the Israel Defense Forces’ investigation, demanding an independent inquiry.

“I made a mistake,” he said, referring to a phone call he made to the family in which he confused Shmueli’s name with that of his father. “I apologize to the family, but it is important to note that he was not murdered, he fell while fulfilling his duty.”

The IDF has denied that the open-fire regulations were to blame — noting that Shmueli himself fired at the rioters when they rushed the border — and said that the way troops were deployed was at fault.

In response to Bennett’s interview, Shmueli’s mother, Nitza, called Bennett a “dog” and “murderer” on social media, before apparently erasing the post.

“Be ashamed, you piece of a dog,” she wrote on Facebook on Tuesday night.

“How dare you say my son wasn’t murdered, you’re a murderer with blood on your hands… I promise you, Bennett, we will someday meet,” she added ominously.

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