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Gantz: We can leverage the Abraham Accords to strengthen the Palestinian Authority

Defense minister says he backs ‘2-entity solution,’ refraining from using the term ‘state’; says Israel has participated in 10 multinational military exercises since 2020 deals

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday expressed his support for leveraging Israel’s new ties with several Arab countries to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, a first for a leading Israeli official.

“I believe that we can leverage the Abraham Accords and ties with regional partners in order to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and promote confidence-building measures,” he said during a live interview at the Aspen Security Forum.

“We need and we can and we should take advantage of [our new Mideast allies] to support those trends in terms of investing in the [PA],” Gantz said during an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg at the event in Colorado.

Israel forged ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, and normalized relations with Morocco and Sudan soon after. Israel already had ties with Egypt and Jordan.

Gantz’s view that the accords could be used to bolster the PA has been regularly voiced by the Biden administration as it responds to criticism from the left that the agreements are an attempt to bypass the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have long demanded their own state before Israel wins regional acceptance, and have called the Abraham Accords “disgraceful” and a betrayal to their cause.

Gantz’s Thursday comments appeared to be the clearest statement by a leading Israeli official tying the accords to advancing the Palestinian issue. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has shown a willingness to connect the two areas behind closed doors, including by agreeing at the Negev Summit last March, while he was foreign minister, to have each of the forum’s six working groups also seek ways to boost the Palestinians.

The position also appeared to go against the view held by the previous government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who boasted of bypassing and weakening the PA, including through the Abraham Accords. Officials from the Trump administration, which brokered the agreements, have offered similar perspectives.

Gantz also voiced pride in meeting PA President Mahmoud Abbas three times in the past year and in advancing what he said were 30 confidence-building measures to boost the Palestinian economy. Ramallah has argued that many of these initiatives have not been implemented, though.

The defense minister said during the Thursday interview that he told Abbas during one of their meetings, “I have a dream that you won’t be here and I’m sure you had the very same dream about me. But guess what, we are both here and we have to find ways to live beside one another.”

Closing their talks at the Negev Summit, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, left, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pose for a photograph Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

He called for further investment in strategic dialogue, infrastructure, stability, security and economic prosperity in the West Bank.

“Then, hopefully, we can down the road create… what I call a two-entity situation,” Gantz said, avoiding using the term “two-state solution.” The rhetorical decision appeared to be an effort to put himself to the right of Lapid and others on the left who openly back the two-state framework.

“I want to make sure that Israel stays strong, secure, democratic, and Jewish, and that means we’re going to have to solve our issues with the Palestinians,” Gantz said.

He said he had “blocked the threat of annexation” of West Bank lands during the previous government under Netanyahu, who dropped the effort in exchange for normalization with the UAE.

“If we were to have annexed those areas, I don’t think we could have practically moved forward with [the] Abraham Accords,” Gantz said.

Gantz claimed Israel and its new Mideast partners were also “creating a regional architecture for defense,” in an apparent reference to the integrated air defense network that he has discussed in recent months.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AP/Collage)

Other countries have been more reluctant to discuss the initiative. White House officials have said the integrated network is still in the works and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal said Saturday that he was unaware of any talks about such an effort involving Israel.

Gantz said Thursday that Israel has taken part in 10 multinational military exercises since the signing of the Abraham Accords, and since Israel was moved from the US military’s Europe-centered EUCOM group to its CENTCOM area of responsibility, which includes other Middle Eastern countries.

“There have been hundreds of meetings and discussions with regional partners,” Gantz said.

“I am very happy that the US has led this and that the region’s leaders have realized and taken this opportunity. We are creating a better Middle East,” he said. “The State of Israel and partners in the region have a common interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and trade, ensuring aerial defense and strengthening our cyber defense.”

“Freedom of navigation” appeared to refer to an agreement advanced by the US last week which will see Egypt transfer a pair of Red Sea Islands to Saudi Arabia. The deal was contingent on guarantees to Israel that it would continue to have freedom of navigation around the Tiran and Sanafir islands as agreed upon in Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

Saudi Arabia has also agreed to open its airspace to all Israeli overflights and is expected to allow direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. While Israel and the US characterized the gestures as the first steps toward Israeli-Saudi normalization, Saudi Arabia denied it and said it would not make peace with Israel before there is a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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