The rushed clarification Monday morning from a “source close to the prime minister” that Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting the previous evening with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had been about “routine matters of the defense establishment with the Palestinian Authority,” and that “there is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one,” was unnecessary.
There was nothing in the meeting between the two men to suggest that the diplomatic process is anywhere close to being back on track. On the contrary.
This may be the first time an Israeli minister has openly met with Abbas since 2014, when Tzipi Livni, the then-justice minister in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, met him in London (which angered then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had not given his blessing in advance). But it doesn’t signify any Israeli openness for diplomatic engagement.
The new government is interested in strengthening the PA, but only in order to prevent violence breaking out in the West Bank and to weaken Hamas. That is why it was Gantz, as defense minister, who was sent to Ramallah. Bennett and his foreign minister (and alternate prime minister) Yair Lapid have no intention of meeting with Abbas.
Gantz was indeed sent to discuss mainly security matters, but also economic ones as well. He is coordinated with Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who doesn’t want to meet Abbas either. He probably wouldn’t be welcome there anyway, due to his rumored connections to Abbas’ mortal rival within Fatah, Mohammed Dahlan.
The government wants to ensure that Abbas remains in control of the security apparatus in the West Bank and, as part of its ongoing strategy of “shrinking the conflict” without actually doing anything to solve it, is interested in helping the PA financially. Gantz is a convenient choice as the emissary to Abbas – both due to his role as defense minister, but also because it appeals to his vanity. He sees himself as the government’s “responsible grown-up.”
That Abbas is prepared to receive him, despite the PA’s official position of boycotting any dialogue with the Israeli leadership since then-President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, shows just how isolated and desperate he currently feels. Not only has boycotting Israel for the past three years achieved nothing for the PA, but in the meantime four Arab countries have broken ranks and made their separate diplomatic agreements with Israel, without any outcry from the rest of the Arab League.
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Furthermore, the change of president in Washington has yet to yield any tangible gains for the Palestinians. President Joe Biden has made it clear that the embassy is not about to go back to Tel Aviv, and he gave the Palestinians no more than a passing reference in his remarks to the media last Friday during his White House meeting with Bennett.
Abbas and Gantz make an interesting pairing. Sixteen years after his election as Palestinian president, Abbas continues to refuse to put himself to the electoral test again, knowing he is almost certain to lose. His belief that the Palestinians will not achieve statehood through armed struggle remains pivotal and has been a key element in keeping the West Bank relatively calm, preventing a third intifada.
But once it became clear that an independent state would not be achievable in the foreseeable future by other means as well, he lost any credibility he ever had with most Palestinians. The stability enforced by his security forces in the West Bank is seen mainly as safeguarding a system of cronyism and corruption, and as shameful cooperation with Israel.
At 85, and with a succession battle already taking place behind the scenes, it’s hard to see Abbas ever redeeming his image or having much of a legacy.
Gantz’s predicament is not so different. Two and a half years ago, he was seen as the man who would unite centrist and left-wing voters, take down Netanyahu and lead Israel into a new political era. Despite running three disastrous campaigns in 2019 and 2020, in which his political abilities were seriously called into question, his Kahol Lavan party managed to rival Likud in size.
However, Gantz’s decision to break his electoral pledge not to serve under an indicted prime minister and join a government with Netanyahu fatally destroyed his standing. He found himself both betrayed by Netanyahu, and then overtaken by younger – and in his view less worthy – politicians who are now leading the government.
His perpetually sour face on the government front bench, as he watches Bennett and Lapid run the show, has become a running joke for pundits and the source of unfounded rumors, fueled by Netanyahu, that he may be amenable to making a deal with him once again.
That won’t happen, and Gantz knows that he no longer has any prospect of one day becoming prime minister. But he’s still not happy with that.
The right-wing Bennett has no interest in dealing with the Palestinian leadership, while Lapid is more interested in dealing with Europe and the Arab states that have established relations with Israel. In principle, the foreign minister still supports the two-state solution. But since it is not going to happen under this Israeli government, why waste time on the Palestinians?
They’re both happy to give Gantz the thankless task, and hope it will give him the sense of purpose he still seems to lack in the new government.
Gantz and Abbas are both has-beens and the perfect custodians for a has-been diplomatic process.