Just three days after meeting Defense Minister Benny Gantz in his Rosh Ha’ayin home last Tuesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dashed any hope that this rare meeting was a harbinger of a thaw in the frigid ties between Israel and the authority.
For just a split second, there was a flicker of hope that maybe this meeting – and the goodwill gestures Israel announced afterward – presaged creating a better atmosphere between Jerusalem and Ramallah.
But then on Friday, Abbas gave an address to mark the anniversary of the first Fatah terrorist attack in Israel – the attempted bombing of the National Water Carrier on January 1, 1965 – and that hope faded. Abbas, as is his wont, blasted Israel, accusing it of “organized terrorism” and “ethnic cleansing,” among other evils. The meeting with Gantz, at least judging from Abbas’s strident tone, changed nothing.
So was it a mistake?
We think not, and in so doing, agree with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
Bennett, at a press conference Sunday night to discuss the Omicron wave, was asked about the Gantz-Abbas meeting, a meeting he had hitherto not publicly addressed.
First, he said, the meeting was held with both his foreknowledge and approval. Secondly, Gantz has overall responsibility for security and creating stability in the West Bank. Such a meeting, therefore, “is a legitimate part” of Gantz’s “toolbox.”
In other words, if this type of meeting helps ensure security and create stability in Judea and Samaria, then it should be held.
Bennett did not comment on Abbas’s later remarks, but it is possible to extrapolate from his “toolbox” answer that he does not think those comments necessarily cancel out the potential benefits of the meeting, especially since the prime minister stressed that the meeting dealt only with security and economic issues, not diplomatic ones.
This is very much in line with the practical approach Bennett has taken to governing: keep an eye on the ultimate goal, and don’t be deflected or detracted from background noise stemming from ideological orthodoxy.
For instance, if the overall goal is to provide security and try to create stability in the West Bank, and if Abbas is useful in achieving that goal, then meetings with him should take place – even though, as the Palestinian leader’s later words made clear, he did not turn into a Lover of Zion.
Bennett added that he personally has no plans to meet with Abbas. Even so, the prime minister clearly realizes the utility of others doing so, and as such green-lighted the meeting by his defense minister. The message: reality is complex and messy.
That complex reality emerged at another point in the press conference when a Channel 14 reporter pointedly quoted remarks Bennett make in the past that the best deterrence to terror is to build settlements after an attack, and noted that not only has he not built any settlements after recent attacks, but has actually evicted settlers.
Bennett’s answer was a study in calm. He said that after it became clear that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to drag the country to a fifth election, “I made a difficult decision to establish a different government, one in which there is the Right and the Left, and in which there is, inside the coalition, [Ra’am Party head] Mansour Abbas,” whom he described as an Arab leader who has shown great courage.
Once such a government was set up, Bennett said, it was clear that there would be limitations. “Clearly a government with this constellation is limited, but I did not see any government in the last decade establish new settlements,” he added in a reference to Netanyahu.
That answer was a clear recognition of reality.
Bennett did not deny that if he was head of a different government he might have acted differently, but he recognized that in the government he decided to form he was instead dealt a certain hand, and that his maneuverability is limited by the cards he was dealt.
After nearly seven months in power, Bennett has internalized that he can’t show a full straight in a card game if only dealt a pair of aces – and that he must play the cards that he has.
This approach is practical – and also one we find refreshing.