Defense Minister Benny Gantz was criticized by some of his coalition partners Monday for meeting a day earlier with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, both of the right-wing New Hope party, each made public comments questioning the need to meet with Abbas, while media reports quoted a senior government source suggesting Gantz could be purposefully trying to bring down the government. The meeting was approved in advance by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, an official said.
“In his place, I wouldn’t have held the meeting because [Abbas] pays salaries to the families of terrorists,” Sa’ar, who heads the party, said in an interview with 103 FM radio.
“At the same time,” he added, “I would not exaggerate its significance.”
The criticism of the meeting, the first high-level face-to-face discussion between the sides in over a decade, underlined the political tightrope demanded by Israel’s poly-partisan cabinet on fractious diplomatic matters, especially regarding the Palestinians. The government, headed by nationalist leader Bennett, includes parties from both the far right and far left of the political spectrum, and leaders have made clear that it will not have the political capital to pursue a restart of talks with the Palestinians.
“In my opinion, this is a unity government, and it does not need [diplomatic] steps from either the left or the right,” Hendel told Army Radio.
Sa’ar said that while there was cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, he stressed that “we have no partner in a diplomatic process, because [Abbas] has no interest in such a process.”
“A Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria will not be established under any circumstances,” he added, using biblical terms for the West Bank.
Hendel also said that he personally would not have met with Abbas, since “he denies the Holocaust and transfers salaries to terrorists. I do not see him as a partner.”
Channel 12 news reported that other ministers were also unhappy with the visit, quoting a senior government source as saying, “Gantz is taking care of his own political interests… If the government falls it will be because of his conduct.”
“If the meeting was for security purposes, why did he issue a press release about it?” they charged, according to the report.
Responding to the claims, Gantz told the network that the meeting was “solely for security purposes,” was coordinated with other ministers, and purposefully kept a low profile. “Not even a picture came out of it,” he said.
But Gantz’s office announced the visit to the press on Sunday night, and on Monday, he briefed reporters on the discussion and announced a number of goodwill steps, including an agreement to transfer NIS 500 million ($155 million) to the PA, which he described as a “loan,” to be paid back from garnished tax revenues that Israel withholds from the PA to offset stipends paid to terrorists.
“Gantz told [Abbas] that Israel is ready for a series of measures that would strengthen the PA economy,” the statement from Gantz’s office on Sunday said.
“The two also discussed shaping the security, civilian and economic reality in Judea, Samaria and Gaza,” it added.
“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz told reporters. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have, and the less we’ll have to do.”
An official close to Bennett downplayed the meeting earlier Monday, saying there would not be any peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
“This is a meeting that deals with security issues. There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be,” the official said in a statement, adding that it was approved in advance by Bennett.
The talks came as Bennett returned from Washington after meeting with US President Joe Biden. Biden raised the Palestinian issue with the new Israeli leader during their discussions.
Bennett has vowed to prop up the ailing PA government and economy, although he has explicitly ruled out working to establish an independent Palestinian state.
The last high-level face-to-face talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders were in 2010, at the beginning of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term in office. While the two leaders crossed paths on occasion later, ties became increasingly strained as the peace process went on indefinite hold; their last public phone call was in 2017 after a Palestinian terror attack.
In recent years, high-level contact between the two sides became scarce.
According to Gantz’s office, the politicians held two rounds of discussions. The first was attended by Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, Ghassan Alian, Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majid Faraj and al-Sheikh. In the second, Gantz and Abbas spoke privately.
Gantz spoke on the phone with Abbas in mid-July, marking the highest-level public contact between the two sides since Netanyahu’s 2017 phone call. A flurry of meetings and phone calls have followed: Public Security Minister Omar Barlev spoke with Abbas a few weeks later, while ministers on both sides held rare meetings with their counterparts.
Israeli officials have publicly emphasized strengthening the PA’s economy, as Ramallah faces a growing fiscal crisis. In July, Israel increased the number of work permits for West Bank Palestinians seeking employment inside Israel in an attempt to ease the economic pangs.
The West Bank economy has been battered by the coronavirus, shrinking by 11.5 percent over the course of 2020. The PA government budget has also taken a serious hit, with a Western diplomat warning The Times of Israel in late July that the PA was “about to collapse, due to lack of revenues.”
At the same time, Ramallah has seen a major drop in Arab and international aid, which previously accounted for a significant chunk of its budget. In 2019, the PA received around $300 million in budget support by the end of June. In 2021, however, they saw just $30.2 million — barely more than one-tenth the previous amount.