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Justice minister: Gantz-Abbas meeting unnecessary, but of little significance

New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar notes all Israeli leaders have met with the Palestinian chief, stresses no concessions have been made

Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on July 14, 2021; Right: Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, on March 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Left: Defense Minister Benny Gantz, on July 14, 2021; Right: Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar, on March 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Saturday criticized a meeting last week between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as “unnecessary,” while also downplaying its significance.

“The meeting between Gantz and Abu Mazen was unnecessary in my eyes, but it isn’t very important,” Sa’ar, of the right-wing New Hope party, told Channel 12 news on Saturday, using the PA president’s nom de guerre.

“All Israeli prime ministers — Netanyahu and Sharon and Olmert — met with Abu Mazen. The defense minister met with him, If I were defense minister, I would not have met [with Abbas], but the significance of that is so limited and marginal,” he told the network. “Were there any diplomatic concessions here?”

Sa’ar was responding to criticism of the meeting on the right flank of the diverse coalition.

“We stood our ground on matters of principle. We pushed off pressure on the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem,” Sa’ar said, apparently meaning the United States’ desire to reopen its consulate to the Palestinians in the capital, which Israel opposes.

“We safeguard the settlements in Judea and Samaria,” he said, in reference to the West Bank. “These are the key issues.”

Gantz hosted Abbas at his home in Rosh Ha’ayin on Tuesday, 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.

The meeting was sharply criticized by hawkish opposition parties, as well as by right-wing members of the coalition, which spans the Israeli political spectrum and has often made policy moves opposed by some of its constituents.

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.

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.

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

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, of Sa’ar’s New Hope party, told Radio 103FM last week 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 by Abbas to have Israeli security officials prosecuted by the International Criminal Court as war criminals (Gantz is a former IDF chief of staff).

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.

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

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.”

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.”

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.

Michael Bachner, Aaron Boxerman, and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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