Netanyahu and Abbas keeping backchannel open even as Israel-PA ties unravel

Tzachi Hanegbi and Hussein al-Sheikh have met once and held several calls via line established to tamp down tensions, pass along warnings, Palestinian official says

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu okayed a secret backchannel to maintain contact with the Palestinian Authority, even as ties between Jerusalem and Ramallah have been subjected to heavy strain in the public eye by the establishment of Israel’s far-right government, a Palestinian official confirmed to The Times of Israel on Monday.

The line of communications was set up last month between National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi and Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh, the official said, confirming a report in the Axios news site.

The official credited US President Joe Biden’s administration with helping facilitate the creation of the backchannel; US officials passed along al-Sheikh’s request to hold talks with the Israeli premier even before Netanyahu had finalized his government.

Both Hanegbi and al-Sheikh are close confidants of their respective bosses, underlining the importance of the channel. The two have met at least once in person and have held several phone calls over the past month and a half, according to the Palestinian official.

A senior Israeli official told Axios that the backchannel does not focus on final status issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather on maintaining a line of communication open with Ramallah in order to de-escalate tensions.

The backchannel has remained in place despite Israel’s decision to slap a series of sanctions against the PA for its successful initiative at the UN last month directing the International Court of Justice to present a legal opinion on Israel’s conduct in the territories.

In a sign of the low point ties have reached publicly, the PA last month announced a freeze on its security coordination with the IDF following a deadly military raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin. The move suspended a vital US-backed mechanism that had survived previous periods of tension, though Abbas has admitted behind closed doors that parts of the cooperation remain.

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy COGAT)

Ties between the PA and the previous government led by former prime ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid were open and often genial, with several ministers meeting publicly with Abbas. While refusing to hold diplomatic talks, that government nonetheless passed a series of unprecedented gestures for the Palestinians, including the approval of thousands of work permits, hundreds of building permits and the registration of thousands of undocumented citizens.

Netanyahu’s new hardline government, which was sworn in in late December, includes many hardline ministers vociferously opposed to any concessions to the Palestinians.

It was unclear whether some of the coalition’s most far-right members — who have also advocated dissolving the PA and criticized previous governments’ contacts with Ramallah — were aware of the backchannel, Axios reported.

The backchannel was also utilized by Israel recently to pass along a warning to the PA, according to an official familiar with the situation. Jerusalem threatened to  shelve a series of measures aimed at easing restrictions on Palestinians during Ramadan if Ramallah continued to push a Security Council resolution condemning last week’s cabinet decision to legalize nine outposts and advance plans for some 10,000 new settlement homes in response to a series of attacks in East Jerusalem.

The PA heeded to US and Israeli pressure on Sunday and agreed to push for a more symbolic Security Council Presidential Statement condemning settlement activity, which was adopted on Monday.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud Party faction meeting at the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking at a Jerusalem event organized by the Conference of Presidents of the Jewish Organizations in North America on Monday, Hanegbi appeared to hint at the backchannel’s existence.

“There were discussions with the Americans and also with us on creating some kind of a new environment by stopping the unilateral steps that were taken in recent months. We are ready for it,” he said.

Hanegbi said Israel has also urged the PA to cease all diplomatic initiatives targeting Israel in international forums.

“There is room for dialogue with the Palestinians, and hopefully it will start very soon,” he said.

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