Gantz defends his meeting with Abbas, says it had Bennett’s backing

Even in the absence of peace talks, Israel is working to counter extremists and strengthen moderates in the region, defense minister says

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz speak in the Knesset on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz speak in the Knesset on September 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved of a recent meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and also thinks Israel should work to shore up the PA leader’s hold on power, Gantz has said.

Gantz met Sunday with Abbas, marking the highest-level meetings between Israel and the PA in over a decade. The defense chief later announced a series of goodwill gestures toward the Palestinians, including a NIS 500 million ($155 million) “loan” of withheld tax revenues.

Some right-wing members of Bennett’s government coalition criticized the move, and Bennett himself, a former settler leader, has ruled out launching a diplomatic process with Ramallah, but Gantz insisted that the premier was on board with him meeting Abbas.

“The prime minister knew about my trip, recognized my trip, knows what I’m talking about,” Gantz told Channel 12 news in an interview on Wednesday evening.

The defense minister noted that both he and Abbas “know that we cannot, at the moment, come to a diplomatic agreement,” but that they both believe in maintaining security ties in order to stabilize the region.

“It was a very important meeting, it was a meeting about security, where we discussed security cooperation and joint activities,” added Gantz. “We want to strengthen the moderate forces in the area.”

A statement from the Defense Ministry Sunday indicated that the focus of the meeting had been discussing moves to bolster the PA’s economy.

“The two also discussed shaping the security, civilian and economic reality in Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” the statement read.

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

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, both of the right-wing New Hope party, publicly criticized Gantz over the meeting, but the defense minister dismissed such statements on Wednesday.

“The public needs to understand that we are operating in a complicated reality,” he told Channel 12. “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 defense minister said criticism of the meeting stems from a lack of understanding of the geopolitical forces at play.

“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,” Gantz said.

Bennett, who is walking a tightrope between his right-wing base and center-left coalition partners, has not commented on the meeting, which took place as he was en route back to Israel from Washington, where he met with US President Joe Biden.

Bennett told The New York Times before the meeting that peace talks with the Palestinians were not on the table.

On Thursday, Abbas discussed the peace process with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. Bennett reportedly met with Abdullah shortly after taking office in June and is slated to meet with Sissi sometime in the future.

The United Nations welcomed the three-way meeting and expressed hopes it would open a window to jumpstart peace talks.

“We hope it will lead to a positive outcome and a regain of traction of diplomacy in the Israeli‑Palestinian conflict, ” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

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