By Marwan Asmar
The meeting of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Defence Minister Benny Gantz in his Israeli hometown has put the cat among the pigeons.
The Palestinians, especially Hamas, are denouncing the meeting and the Israeli Likud right-wing and religious extremists are in a state of flux and abhorrence for what they see as a very dangerous stage.
This is the second time Abbas meets Gantz, a former Israeli general who led the 2014 Israeli bloody war on Gaza. Gantz met Abbas in his office in Ramallah last August, talked to him in July and cancelled a last-minute meeting with him in June for fear the Israeli coalition that was being formed would fall apart.
This last meeting suggests there would be more to come in the near future especially since different tangible things have come out of this last get-together which lasted for two-and-a-half hours, included advisers on both sides, and some of the time, was on a one-to-one basis.
This suggests there is a developing rapport between the Palestinian leader and the Israeli minister. Although this might be rejected by different Palestinian analysts, the meeting unlocked a series of issues both sides want to implement. On the one hand, and Israeli newspapers focused on this, there was a renewed commitment on security coordination between Palestinian and Israeli security personnel. Gantz also wanted, for want of a better word, greater crackdown on Palestinians opposed to the Israeli presence in the occupied territories.
For this Abbas, received greater monetary concessions for the Palestinians including a $32 million advance payment for Israel. These are taxes which Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority and which, quite frequently, Jewish governments, and no doubt this present one would used in a “carrot-and-stick” fashion to keep the Ramallah government in check. In addition Abbas, managed to get 600 permits for Palestinian businessmen to enter Israel. Finally, Gantz promised he would allow the continued entry of Palestinians to enter Israel and work their with the figure dubbed at 6000.
These are seen by the Israelis as part of strengthening “confidence-building” measures in the economic and civilian fields to lighten the deteriorating conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. In his meeting with Gantz, Abbas was accompanied by Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Sheikh. He confirmed what was also discussed was creating a “political horizon” that would lead to a diplomatic solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in line with UN international resolutions.
If true, this would indeed be tangible and could lead to a revival of the long-stalemated peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. But apart from what has been said, the Israelis are not giving anything away. Although Israel’s hawkish Prime Minister Neftali Bennett is naturally aware of the talks and meetings, he continues to say “no” to the peace process and this is in spite of the view of the new American administration who have said they want see negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians restarted again.
Al Sheikh however said Abbas told Gantz this is the last opportunity because the Palestinian street is boiling and could easily blow up. World Bank statistics have continually put the daily per capita income of workers in the West Bank at $2 if jobs can be found. In Gaza the situation, mainly because of the economic siege Israel imposed on the Strip since 2007, is much worse with unemployment skyrocketing at more than 50% which is a conservative estimate. The coronavirus pandemic has made things worse across the territories since the beginning of January 2020. That’s one serious aspect.
The other is the continual expansion of settlements on the West Bank. These are no more than colonies housing at least 500,000 Jewish extremists across the West Bank and East Jerusalem and serve as a continual source of friction. These settlements and people are making the situation worse because of the protection they need in terms of Israeli soldiers needed to keep them amongst Palestinian population centers.
A case in point is the recent troubles in the village of Burqa outside the West Bank city of Nablus that resulted in the injury of at least 247 Palestinians who stood up against the 1000s of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers who served as a cause of provocation in the village. In an unprecedented move, these settlers descended on the village because they felt they had the right to be there to visit a settlement there that was closed by the Israelis in 2005.
And of course Israeli-Palestinian relations is at an all time low because of Israel’s last May war on Gaza that resulted in the killing of 256 Palestinians including 66 children and injuring 1,900 not to say of the the tensions created in Al Aqsa Mosque and the Sheikh Jarar neighbourhood where settlers are trying to take over homes of Palestinians who had long lived there since the mid-1950s.
This is the context for the last meeting of the meeting of the Palestinian leader with the Israeli defence minister. Its actually a very brave decision on his part, but Abbas, a long-time political player who can read changes of the time, sees an opportunity in meeting with the Israelis regardless of their intransigence. This is the first time since 2010 he sits with a senior Israel minister.
In 2010 Abbas travelled to Israel to have a brief meeting with the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He travelled to Israel again to attend the funeral of Shimon Peres – who served as president of the Jewish state and who died in 2016. Apart from that, it was as if the Palestinian Authority didn’t exist for Netanyahu.
And the present series of meetings with Gantz comes within potentially new changing relations between the Arab countries and Israel. Aside from the normalization of relations with the four Arab countries established in late 2020s, Israeli politicians are meeting with leaders in Jordan, Morocco and recently with the United Arab Emirates where a new rapport is being seen that represents a new crossroads of relations.
It is from within this wider regional framework that the new Abbas-Gantz visits and rapport must be seen from regardless of the opposition coming from Israel and Palestinian factions, including from the Abbas party Fatah, some of whose members are not at happy with the rapport.
But judging from things on the ground there is much to go, and this is only the beginning of the road. Clearly Abbas doesn’t want to miss the boat, especially if he can get concessions from the Israeli side to help lighten the worsening economic plight of the Palestinian people and the fact that the Jewish state is making more fiends with Arab countries.