Palestinian president, Israeli defence minister hold rare talks

In first high-level talks in years, Benny Gantz announces gestures aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority.

Gantz travelled to the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah for security and economic discussions with 85-year-old Abbas [File: Abir Sultan/Reuters]

Israel’s defence minister has announced a series of gestures aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority, including plans to loan $150m to the cash-strapped autonomy government in the occupied West Bank.

The announcement on Monday came a day after Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years.

The stepped-up contacts and Israeli gestures mark a shift in direction after the complete breakdown of communication between Abbas and Israeli leaders in recent years. Israel’s new government has said it is interested in bolstering Abbas in his rivalry against Gaza’s ruling Hamas group.

“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz was quoted as telling Israeli military correspondents on Monday. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”

Gantz’s office said he told Abbas that Israel will take new measures to strengthen the Palestinian economy. It said they also discussed security issues and agreed to remain in touch. It was believed to be the highest level public meeting between the sides since 2014.

Later on Monday, Gantz’s office confirmed that Israel had agreed to loan the Palestinian Authority 500 million shekels ($155m). The money is to be repaid with tax funds that Israel normally collects for the Palestinians.

“Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmud Abbas [Sunday] evening to discuss security policy, civilian and economic issues,” Israel’s defence ministry said in a statement.

The meeting included the head of the Israeli military branch responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, Ghasan Alyan, senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.

Al-Sheikh confirmed the meeting on Twitter, while Gantz’s office said the defence minister and Abbas held “a one-on-one meeting” after the larger talks.

The Israeli move comes two days after President Joe Biden urged Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennet during a White House meeting to take steps toward improving the lives of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Palestinian resistance factions condemned the meeting between Gantz and Abbas. Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said that such meetings “will deepen the Palestinian division and complicate the Palestinian situation”.

He said Sunday’s meeting “was a continuation of the PA delusion of the possibility of achieving something to our people through the failed settlement path”.

Islamic Jihad spokesman Tareq Selmi described Abbas-Gantz meeting as a “stab”.

The meeting “came at a time when the Israeli forces are continuing their attacks on Gaza and maintaining its years-long blockade on the territory,” he said.

“The blood of [Palestinian] children killed by the [Israeli] occupation army upon orders from Gantz is still on the ground and has not dried yet,” Selmi said.

A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gantz and Abbas discussed possible steps towards improving relations – including Palestinian demands for a halt in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank, allowing the unification of families with relatives inside Israel, and allowing more Palestinian workers into Israel.

‘Maintaining the status quo’

Bennett is a hardline nationalist who opposes Palestinian statehood and previously led a powerful settler lobbying council.

Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the talks marked a shift in engagement but noted it is “very doubtful” they are a move towards reviving the moribund peace process.

“New Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a nationalist and has said he opposes a Palestinian state, so we cannot expect negotiations on the peace process to be on his agenda … What’s really noteworthy here is the maintaining of the status quo.”

Bennett sought on Monday to play down any notion of a move towards renewed peace negotiations. Israeli media outlets quoted “a source close to the prime minister” as saying: “There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one.”

In a sign of friction over Palestinian statehood from within Bennett’s fragile coalition, Mossi Raz, a legislator from the left-wing Meretz party, said the dismissal of prospects for renewed peace talks was “outrageous”.

“A peace process is an Israeli interest,” Raz wrote on Twitter.

After his US visit, a White House statement said Biden reiterated to Bennett his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians”.

Relations between Israel and the PA, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, have deteriorated substantially in recent years.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power from 2009 to 2021, was derided by Palestinians.

He made no substantive efforts towards achieving lasting peace while overseeing a steady expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. Settlements and outposts are regarded as illegal under international law.

Netanyahu was backed by former US President Donald Trump who approved pro-Israeli policies such as moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Abbas halted most contacts with the US and Israel during those years.

He also signed several normalisation deals and initiated diplomatic ties with Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain – moves decried by the Palestinian leadership as a “treacherous stab to the Palestinian cause”.

Bennett’s office has repeatedly made clear Israel’s ideologically disparate coalition, which includes left-wing politicians and hawks, has no plans to initiate a new round of peace talks.

But top Israeli officials have indicated a desire to boost the PA amid concern over a new conflict with Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, an Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave that is separated from the West Bank.

An 11-day Israeli offensive on Gaza in May killed 265 people in Gaza. In Israel, 13 people died. Confrontations have persisted despite an Egypt-brokered ceasefire.

Abbas’s PA has also come under mounting global criticism over a crackdown on key rights following the death in Palestinian custody of a prominent activist.

The United Nations and European Union last week expressed alarm over a spate of arrests singling out leading critics of Abbas and the PA.

The PA is widely viewed as corrupt and authoritarian with a recent poll in June showing support for Abbas, who took power for what was supposed to be a four-year term in 2005, has plummeted.

Many have also criticised the PA’s close security coordination with Israel, seen by many Palestinians as a betrayal.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies