Sep 1, 2021 - World

Rare meeting with Palestinian leader sparks rift in Israeli government

Benny Gantz. Photo: Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP via Getty

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz's trip to Ramallah on Sunday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — the first such visit by an Israeli Cabinet member in 12 years — ultimately proved how politically sensitive any steps to improve relations with the Palestinians can be in Israel.

Why it matters: Relations with the Palestinian Authority were frozen almost entirely under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz's visit was months in the making and was approved by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but ended up causing tensions within the government.

Driving the news: The Palestinian side quickly issued a statement after the meeting ended, saying it had covered “Palestinian-Israeli relations on all aspects.” Gantz then issued his own statement saying that he and Abbas had discussed political-military and civilian-economic issues.

  • Gantz also announced a set of confidence-building measures to boost the Palestinian economy, including a $150 million "loan."
  • News of the meeting and the use of the word "political" led to criticism and questions for Bennett from the right about whether he had approved the meeting and what had been discussed.

What he's saying: Bennett, who had expected a lower-profile meeting, tried to downplay the “loan,” asking the Ministry of Defense to issue a clarification that it will not come from Israeli funds but as an advance payment of Palestinian tax revenues.

  • He also issued a statement saying the meeting only covered day-to-day security issues.

Bennett went one step further, saying, “There are no political talks with the Palestinians and there will be no political talks with the Palestinians."

  • Briefing the Security Cabinet on Tuesday after his meeting with Biden, Bennett said, “I am the only prime minister in three decades who told the president of the United States I am not going to hold peace talks with the Palestinians. But I told Biden I am serious in my intentions to improve the Palestinian economy and Palestinian lives," according to an Israeli Cabinet minister.

Between the lines: Bennett’s reaction has shown his need to reassure the right-wing members of his coalition that he is not giving any political concessions to the Palestinians.

  • On the other hand, Bennett is allowing the left-wing members of his coalition to take steps to improve the atmosphere with the Palestinians and promote civilian and economic initiatives in the West Bank.
  • The Israeli government is planning more steps in the near future to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, but Bennett will continue that balancing act as long as possible in order to keep the government stable.

The backstory: Gantz initially wanted to meet Abbas right after the Gaza war in May, but was concerned such a meeting could undermine the coalition negotiations between Bennett and Yair Lapid, now the foreign minister.

  • He asked Bennett to approve a meeting right after the government was formed, but Bennett asked him to wait.
  • He asked again recently, stressing that there were pressing security issues to discuss, and Bennett gave a green light for a meeting after he returned from Washington.
  • On Sunday night, several hours after Bennett landed in Tel Aviv, Gantz met Abbas at his house in Ramallah.

Worth noting: The decision to meet Gantz was at least as controversial for Abbas. A Hamas spokesperson called it “a stab in the back of the Palestinian people” and a “betrayal of the blood of the martyrs.”

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