Gantz announces confidence-building moves with Palestinians

Gantz’s right-wing coalition partners assail him for hosting PA chief Abbas

Minister Elkin notes the Palestinian leader ‘wants the ICC to jail the defense minister as a war criminal’; PM Bennett reportedly exasperated; but the left praises him

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak, during the swearing-in ceremony for President Isaac Herzog, on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak, during the swearing-in ceremony for President Isaac Herzog, on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing politicians from the opposition as well as the coalition criticized Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting Tuesday evening with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. 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.

Gantz hosted Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, 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 the PA. According to the Defense Ministry, it lasted two and a half hours; part of it was between Abbas and Gantz alone.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians Ghassan Alian, known as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), also participated in the meeting on the Israeli side. Key Abbas adviser Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian official responsible for managing ties with Israel, accompanied Abbas, along with Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majed Faraj.

“The defense minister emphasized the shared interest in strengthening security cooperation, preserving security stability, and preventing terrorism and violence,” Gantz’s office said in a statement.

Recent weeks have seen a spike in Palestinian terror attacks. There has also been a rise in settler violence against Palestinians.

During the meeting, Abbas told Gantz that as long as he, Abbas, was in power, he wouldn’t allow violence, terror and use of live fire against Israelis, regardless of where Israeli-Palestinian relations stand, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) attends a conference in the Eshkol region, southern Israel. on July 13, 2021; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech regarding COVID-19, at the Palestinian Authority headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 5, 2020. (Flash90)

Citing Palestinian sources, Kan said PA security forces will keep acting to prevent terrorism. The report said that 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.

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.

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin speaks during a press conference, presenting new reform on housing, at the Finance Ministry, Jerusalem, October 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

“There is no peace plan on the table; the Americans also know this,” Elkin said in a separate interview with Kan.

Another New Hope minister, Yoaz Hendel, told Kan that while Jerusalem has ties with Ramallah, he “personally wouldn’t have met” with Abbas, who “in my eyes is still a Holocaust denier and is playing a very strange double game.”

The Palestinian leader has a long history of Holocaust denial. His 1982 doctoral dissertation reportedly claimed that the six million figure of Holocaust victims was hugely exaggerated and that Zionist leaders cooperated with the Nazis. In 2018, he said that the Holocaust was not caused by antisemitism, but by the “social behavior” of the Jews, including money-lending.

Kan also quoted unnamed cabinet ministers as saying Gantz’s conduct “doesn’t contribute to the stability of the government.”

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.”

Left, Bezalel Smotrich, after winning the election for chairman of the National Union, at the Crown Plaza hotel in Jerusalem, January 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90). Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a drill of the Armored Corps in Shizafon Base, in southern Israel on January 23, 2019. (Flash90)

The far-right Religious Zionism party warned of a repeat of the 1990s Oslo Accords with the PA, which the Israeli right blames for years of terror attacks that followed.

“Bennett and his left-wing government are bringing Oslo back to the table and [Abbas] back to the center stage,” the party said, after “10 years in which the right managed to make [Abbas] irrelevant and persona non grata in the world, and to take off the table talk of dividing the land and forming a terrorist state in the heart of the Land of Israel.”

Hamas, the terrorist group that rules Gaza, slammed Abbas for meeting with Gantz, calling the move “reprehensible and condemnable.”

“This is an attack on the uprising taking place in the West Bank,” said the group’s spokesperson Hazim Qasim, in an apparent reference to a spate of recent attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Gantz later dismissed the criticism.

“Only someone who is responsible for sending soldiers into battle knows how deep the obligation to prevent it is,” he tweeted. “This is how I have always acted, and this is how I will continue to act.”

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.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz leads a Meretz party faction meeting at the Knesset on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan SindelFlash90)

Labor MK Emilie Moatti tweeted: “Apart from Hamas over there and the opposition chairman over here, is there anyone else going crazy over Gantz’s meeting with [Abbas]?” She hailed Gantz for acting to “strengthen the moderates and make the extremists irrelevant.”

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.

Illustrative: Yoav Mordechai (L), a former head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, speaks with Ashraf Jabari and other Palestinian businessmen ahead of the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

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.

Aaron Boxerman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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