On three separate occasions this week, Israeli government representatives said that the diplomatic process with the Palestinian Authority will not be pursued, and that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett does not plan to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“There has been no intention to hold a meeting between the prime minister and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority and no such meeting is anticipated,” Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi said Wednesday in response to a report by the Arabic-language London daily Asharq al-Awsat of a planned Bennett-Abbas meeting in Egypt that was canceled at the last moment. (In the near future, however, Bennett is expected to have a public meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi).
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Earlier this week, following Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting with Abbas in Ramallah, a statement was issued on behalf of “an official close to the prime minister” saying that “there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians and neither will there be one.” According to the official, “the Gantz-Abu Mazen [Abbas] meeting was approved in advance by the prime minister. This was a meeting involving the defense establishment’s ongoing topics vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority.”
“Bennett’s positions are known,” a diplomatic official said this week. “With him, there won’t be diplomatic progress, but he really does think there’s a need to advance the economic-civilian aspect. He really wants to do that. He really thinks that a Palestinian laborer doesn’t need to get up at 3 A.M. and stand in line to get to Tel Aviv at 7. How does such a situation serve a right-wing person?”
Bennett instructed his new national security adviser, Eyal Hulata, to pursue improving conditions for Palestinians at border crossings in and out of Israel as well as other improvements to Palestinians’ quality of life. “It’s dramatic,” the source said. “This isn’t a matter of small steps.”
Bennett’s reservations over having direct contact with top Palestinian Authority officials have made Gantz the most senior Israeli figure in the contacts with the Palestinian Authority. As defense minister, Gantz is responsible in any event for pursuing security and economic issues in the West Bank. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg and Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige, all from Meretz, as well as Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev of Labor, have also been working with the PA.
Gantz’s meeting this week with Abbas in Ramallah was the first official meeting of an Israeli cabinet minister with Abbas since 2010. In 2014, then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also did so, but the meeting was held over the opposition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Gantz’s meeting in Ramallah caused a measure of tension with Bennett. Although it had been approved in advance by the prime minister and was held out of the presence of the media – at 10 P.M. – the Prime Minister’s Office was quick to distance itself from the event. Sources at the Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday that they thought it would have been better if the meeting had not been held, but that it was decided to approve it nevertheless.
The timing of the meeting was designed to limit the embarrassment for Bennett. It didn’t occur before his departure for Washington or while he was in the American capital, but rather in advance of Abbas’ meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.
Hussein al-Sheikh, the Palestinian minister responsible for relations with Israel, was the first to disclose the Gantz-Abbas meeting, immediately after it took place, in a tweet. After that, the Defense Ministry issued a statement saying that Gantz had held talks with Abbas on steps that would strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s economy and on “shaping the reality” in the West Bank and Gaza from the standpoint of security, civilian affairs and the economy.
In a briefing to military reporters on Tuesday, Gantz disclosed that he had come to an agreement with Abbas on resolving the status of thousands of individuals living in the West Bank without legal status, and regarding a half-billion shekel ($156 million) loan that, as a result of the PA’s economic crisis, Israel will give the Palestinians as an advance on tax receipts it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf.
These steps are in addition to prior government decisions to issue 15,000 new Israeli work permits to Palestinians, along with about 1,000 construction permits in Area C of the West Bank.
Senior PA officials have given the Biden administration a list of demands that could be advanced even without public negotiations with Israel. The list was transmitted three months ago and includes some 30 suggestions for restoring the PA’s authority, improving the Palestinian economy and addressing Palestinians’ civic quality of life.
A source said the PA, the Israeli government and the Biden administration do not believe it’s possible at this stage to advance a public diplomatic process, but that some initiatives proposed by the Palestinians could be pursued “under the radar” without attracting Palestinian or Israeli public attention.
“Everyone has an interest in maintaining a low profile. Not all of the proposals appearing in the document can be implemented at the current time, but even if it’s possible to pursue some of the steps, at least in the civilian sector, that would provide achievements for the Palestinian public and improve their daily lives,” the source said.