Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz has met Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in 10 years, the first since Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office in June.
Gantz travelled to the West Bank city of Ramallah for “security, civilian, and economic discussions” with the 85-year-old Palestinian leader, officials said on Monday.
They came hours after Israeli leader Bennett returned from Washington, DC where he met US President Joe Biden at the White House.
“Defence Minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmud Abbas [Sunday] evening to discuss security policy, civilian and economic issues,” Israel’s defence ministry said in a statement.
Gantz, the head of a centrist party in Israel’s government coalition, told Abbas “that Israel seeks to take measures that will strengthen the PA’s economy. They also discussed shaping the security and economic situations in the West Bank and in Gaza”, it added.
“They agreed to continue communicating further.”
The meeting included the head of the Israeli military branch responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, Ghasan Alyan, senior PA official Hussein al-Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.
Al-Sheikh confirmed the meeting on Twitter, while Gantz’s office said the defence minister and Abbas held “a one-on-one meeting” after the larger talks.
— حسين الشيخ Hussein Al Sheikh (@HusseinSheikhpl) August 29, 2021
A Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Gantz and Abbas discussed possible steps towards improving relations – including Palestinian demands for a halt in Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank, allowing the unification of families with relatives inside Israel, and allowing more Palestinian workers into Israel.
‘Maintaining the status quo’
Bennett is a hardline nationalist who opposes Palestinian statehood and previously led a powerful settler lobbying council.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the talks marked a shift in engagement but noted it is “very doubtful” they are a move towards reviving the moribund peace process.
“New Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a nationalist and has said he opposes a Palestinian state, so we cannot expect negotiations on the peace process to be on his agenda … What’s really noteworthy here is the maintaining of the status quo.”
Relations between Israel and the PA, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, have deteriorated substantially in recent years.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power from 2009 to 2021, was derided by Palestinians.
He made no substantive efforts towards achieving lasting peace while overseeing a steady expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. Settlements and outposts are regarded as illegal under international law.
Netanyahu was backed by former US President Donald Trump who approved pro-Israeli policies such as moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Abbas halted most contacts with the US and Israel during those years.
He also signed several normalisation deals and initiated diplomatic ties with Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain – moves decried by the Palestinian leadership as a “treacherous stab to the Palestinian cause”.
Bennett’s office has made clear Israel’s ideologically disparate coalition, which includes left-wing politicians and hawks, has no plans to initiate a new round of peace talks.
But top Israeli officials have indicated a desire to boost the PA amid concern over a new conflict with Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, an Israeli-blockaded Palestinian enclave that is separated from the West Bank.
An 11-day Israeli offensive on Gaza in May killed 265 people in Gaza. In Israel, 13 people died. Confrontations have persisted despite an Egypt-brokered ceasefire.
Abbas’s PA has also come under mounting global criticism over a crackdown on key rights following the death in Palestinian custody of a prominent activist.
The United Nations and European Union last week expressed alarm over a spate of arrests singling out leading critics of Abbas and the PA.
The PA is widely viewed as corrupt and authoritarian with a recent poll in June showing support for Abbas, who took power for what was supposed to be a four-year term in 2005, has plummeted.
Many have also criticised the PA’s close security coordination with Israel, seen by many Palestinians as a betrayal.