Gantz-Abbas meeting shows coalition's confused policy on Palestinians - analysis

This is a government in which the Right, Left and Center are so out of sync when it comes to the Palestinians that they are keeping one another in check.

 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz (photo credit: ALEX KOLOMOISKY / POOL, MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz

The meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday night and its aftermath highlight how inconsistent this government can be when it comes to relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

This was the first time Abbas met a senior Israeli official in sovereign Israel in 10 years, which may sound like a breakthrough of some kind – but this government was not built for breakthroughs.

There are contradictions inherent in this coalition. For at least the past three decades, Israeli politics have been defined to a great extent by approaches to the conflict with the Palestinians and the status of the land in Judea and Samaria. But the major dichotomy in the last election was more about approaches to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all that he symbolizes on a domestic level, bringing together partners with vastly different ideas about what was long the biggest political issue.

The solution the coalition partners found was to try to ignore the conflict as much as possible. Make no concessions and build minimally in settlements, but try to develop a positive economic relationship with the Palestinians for the benefit of both sides.

Ironically, this was long Netanyahu’s approach, though not in his last years in office.

 Naftali Bennett at the UN General Assembly, September 27, 2021 (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO) Naftali Bennett at the UN General Assembly, September 27, 2021 (credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)

Different parts of the coalition have interpreted this differently.

Gantz has already met with Abbas twice, but presents those meetings as focused on security cooperation and economic peace.

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej has revived the Joint Economic Committee, part of the Paris Protocol of the Oslo Accords, and convened it for the first time in 12 years this summer.

Frej’s fellow Meretz ministers, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, as well as Economy Minister Orna Barbivay of Yesh Atid, met with their Palestinian counterparts.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has a plan to improve the economy for Palestinians in Gaza in exchange for Hamas agreeing to demilitarization, but isn’t talking to any Palestinians.

Others in the coalition have shown little interest in the Palestinians. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett didn’t mention it at all in his speech to the United Nations earlier this year, and that reflects his general approach to the matter. He doesn’t want a two-state solution, and he thinks the Palestinian issue takes up too much of Israel’s time.

But, as political theorist Michael Walzer has said, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Palestinians have perpetrated nine terrorist attacks in a little over a month, the most recent being the shooting of an Israeli civilian on the Gaza border Wednesday. Bennett may want to minimize focus on the conflict, but the terrorists aren’t taking his feelings into consideration.

IT’S IN that context that the Gantz-Abbas meeting took place. PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein Al Sheikh, who was in the meeting, said on Twitter that it was “the last chance before the explosion” – which could fairly be understood as more terrorism against Israelis.

Gantz “emphasized the joint interests of strengthening the security coordination and maintaining security stability and preventing terrorism and violence,” his office said, and listed economic gestures he made, such as increasing work permits and allowing Palestinian businesspeople to enter Israel.

Despite Gantz not mentioning diplomatic negotiations, as is this coalition’s wont, Al Sheikh called the meeting “a serious and bold attempt to a political path based on international legitimacy.”

Bennett knew about the meeting in advance, his spokeswoman confirmed, but would not comment. However, coalition sources said he expressed dissatisfaction about it. Others in the coalition had plenty to say.

Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin told 103FM, “I wouldn’t invite someone to my home who pays salaries to those who murder Israelis and wants to put senior IDF officers in prison at The Hague, including the host himself.”

Gantz and Abbas had been planning the meeting for weeks. It was postponed after Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists killed 25-year-old Yehuda Dimentman last week, which means that Bennett knew this meeting was coming on Tuesday morning when he slammed the PA for “playing a double game.”

“On the one hand, in these very days, they are sending money to terrorists and families of terrorists,” he said. “It is unacceptable that to this day there is a price list for murderers – if you murder more, you get more money.”

At the same time, Bennett admitted, Israel cooperates with the PA’s security forces. However, he told Army Radio, “The key to ensuring Israel’s existence is to keep security in the hands of Israel and the IDF. We don’t outsource our security – and whoever did this, failed.”

Gantz, remember, touted the importance of security cooperation with the Palestinians.

And another thing Gantz did that seems to be a total contradiction to how Bennett presented the situation was to announce that he would release NIS 100 million of tax and tariffs Israel collects for the Palestinians.

The reason Israel is holding those funds is the “pay for slay law.” Withholding those funds is meant to discourage the practice Bennett mentioned of paying terrorists or their families for killing Israelis, by freezing tax and tariff transfers amounting to how much the PA paid for what it calls its “Martyr’s Fund,” which was NIS 597m. ($185m.) in 2020. No matter what Gantz may think of it, the law requires him to deduct those funds, and he plans to continue doing so – but it doesn’t prevent him from transferring some to the PA later.

A defense official said “pay for slay” came up in the Gantz-Abbas meeting, but would not give further details.

Asked about the contradiction in freezing funds to discourage the “pay for slay” practice and then releasing them despite the Palestinians continuing to pay terrorists, the defense official said, “We support giving the PA certain humanitarian aid and strengthening them economically, while saying we absolutely don’t support giving money to terrorists.”

Another element of the meeting that shows how different the approaches are within the coalition is that Gantz and Abbas not only discussed Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation when it comes to Palestinian terrorist attacks. Al Sheikh tweeted about “the tense situation [in] the field because of the practices of settlers,” and an Israeli defense source confirmed that violence by settlers was a topic of discussion in the meeting.

That is a topic that has been highly controversial in this government, ever since Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev tweeted about it earlier this month. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel criticized him for painting half a million people – settlers – as violent, and sources close to Bennett said he felt the same way.

The matter has continued to be part of the public discussion in recent days, with Bar Lev being given a security detail and blaming his fellow cabinet ministers on Tuesday for inspiring those threatening his life. Hendel responded by saying it was his responsibility to criticize other ministers who are making mistakes.

It’s all of these disagreements that make the Abbas-Gantz meeting less impactful than it may initially seem to be, even if it’s the first of its kind in 10 years.

This is a government in which the Right, Left and Center are so out of sync when it comes to the Palestinians that they are keeping one another in check.

Even if Gantz makes big gestures, they mostly remain just that – gestures.