Palestine-Israel: A return to the peace process?

Demonstrators lift placards calling for the release of Anhar al-Deek, a nine-month pregnant Palestinian woman incarcerated in an Israeli prison, during a protest in front of the Red Cross offices in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, on August 31, 2021. – Al-Deek was arrested in March, on suspicion of trying to carry out a stabbing attack in March at a settller outpost in the occupied West Bank, then indicted and detained in an Israeli prison awating trial, and is currently expected to give birth in jail soon, as reported by Israeli media. (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

After a hiatus of many years, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Monday with Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, also the leader of the Kahol Lavan Party, a partner in the Israeli government coalition. This is the first meeting of its kind and the highest-level meeting between the Palestinian president and Israeli officials in 11 years.

Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister and member of Fatah’s Central Committee Hussein Al-Sheikh announced the meeting simultaneously with an announcement by Gantz’s office. Al-Sheikh said the meeting had discussed ways of bolstering Palestinian-Israeli relations, while Gantz said it had focused on providing economic aid to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is facing a political and financial crisis.

Gantz’s office added that the meeting also probed bilateral security, political, civil and economic issues. Gantz told Abbas that Israel was prepared to take steps to boost the PA’s economy in the West Bank, and the two also talked about security, economic and civilian conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The meeting took place just days after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with US President Joe Biden at the White House, where Biden stressed his support for a two-state solution in Israel-Palestine.

Monday’s meeting was also preceded by talks between Israeli ministers and their Palestinian counterparts for the first time in many years. In Occupied Jerusalem, Israeli Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz sat with his Palestinian counterpart Mai Al-Kaila. Israeli Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg also met with her Palestinian counterpart.

The Israeli media reported earlier that Israeli President Isaac Herzog might meet soon with Abbas in the light of reports that Washington is pushing for a reactivation of the political process between the PA and Israel.

The Abbas-Gantz meeting in Ramallah on the West Bank raised questions about whether this was the start of a political track between the two sides, or whether it was merely a stone thrown in otherwise still waters.

It coincided with efforts by the Biden administration and Arab action led by Egypt and Jordan to jump start the peace process and block Israeli unilateral actions to create a fait accompli on the ground and undermine political attempts to relaunch the peace process.

Officials in the Israeli government, which has a fragile majority in the Knesset, tried to cut short speculation about the meeting. The Israeli Broadcasting Corporation (Makan) quoted an official as saying that the meeting was “not part of political negotiations with the PA,” adding that it was “unlikely” Israel would take this path.

According to Makan, the official said that Bennett had earlier given the green light for Gantz to meet with Abbas in Ramallah, and he revealed that the talks had focused on security coordination between the security agencies and the PA.

Some Israeli affairs experts believe Israel has been underplaying the meeting to mitigate the concerns of some partners in the Israeli coalition government, which include right-wing forces that reject an independent Palestinian state. A political track with the Palestinians that leads to statehood could be a threat to the cohesion of the incumbent coalition cabinet.

Meanwhile, left and centre partners in the Israeli cabinet believe that looking into returning to negotiations with the Palestinians should not be the top priority of Bennett’s government, because this is an issue that would trigger discord within the coalition government and risk its collapse.

If the cabinet breaks up, this will take Israel back to the political vacuum it suffered from until the present cabinet was formed by the smallest of margins. However, those calling for a return to talks with the PA believe that this is necessary to prevent the PA itself from collapsing and losing popularity in favour of Hamas.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that a “two-state solution is not an option,” while Yamina Party leader Bennett is in power as prime minister. Lapid said this option could return to the government’s agenda when he becomes prime minister when the leadership rotates to him in two years.

“This would be according to the power-sharing agreement of the coalition [government] that both sides signed earlier this year, according to which former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was removed from power,” Lapid said.

The statements by the alternate prime minister came in response to US efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as a precondition to returning to the negotiating table and improving conditions in the Palestinian Territories. But these requirements would be difficult for Bennett to implement.

Israeli officials understand that a political track with the Palestinians without the necessary groundwork within the Israeli government would likely provide ammunition for the opposition under the leadership of Likud Party leader Netanyahu.

Israeli Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked, a member of Bennett’s Yamina Party, threatened to dismantle the coalition if Lapid moves towards negotiations with the Palestinians.

Shaked said that “there is a rejection of a political settlement that includes the creation of a Palestinian state during Bennett’s tenure, and if this happens there will be no government.”

She said there would “never” be a Palestinian state during the tenure of any government in which she was a member. Lapid is well aware of this, as are left-wing parties in the cabinet.

Bennett, meanwhile, has been clear on his refusal to return to negotiations with the PA, but he is facing pressure from Washington and Arab moves that may force him to take steps in that direction.

On the Palestinian front, the PA believes that Israel must stop its punitive actions against the Palestinians, causing the economy to hit rock bottom and leading to escalations with Israel.

But returning to talks for economic reasons and ignoring political obstacles that go beyond what the two sides agreed in previous agreements has also drawn criticisms from the Palestinian factions.

Waleed Al-Awad, a member of the Politburo of the Palestinian People’s Party which is under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), said that the Abbas-Gantz meeting represented a slide towards an economic solution at the expense of a political one.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both in opposition to the PA, were harsher in their criticisms of the meeting.

All this puts pressure on the PA because of Israel’s refusal to make major compromises to achieve tangible results that are worthwhile to the Palestinians and because of Palestinian anger against the PA for many reasons, with Monday’s meeting only making this worse.

The controversy between some of the Palestinian factions and the PA came after a leaked document revealed that Abbas had asked Hamas to recognise various international resolutions and send him a letter saying as much signed by Hamas Politburo chief Ismail Haneyya before Fatah would consider entering into a national unity government.

Hamas views this as capitulating to Israel’s demands.

In the light of these statements, Fatah accused its political rival Hamas of not being serious about ending the divisions between the Palestinian factions. Both sides have begun a media war about who is responsible for delaying reaching an agreement to end divisions and achieve the Palestinian national reconciliation that Egypt has sponsored for years.

These factors indicate that divisions in both the Palestinian and Israeli ranks pose a serious threat to attempts to resume the political track of the peace process. Israel sees the PA’s inability to extend its control over the Gaza Strip as an excuse to backtrack on previous understandings or pressure to sit down with the PA again.

For its part, the PA believes the US administration, the EU and influential Arab parties must play a bigger role in pressuring Israel to move further on the path to peace.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly