Sunday, 24 Oct 2021

In Reversal, Israel’s New Government Engages With Palestinian Authority

The government has held high-level meetings with Palestinian officials and aided the Palestinians economically, a sharp change from the previous government.

By Adam Rasgon

JERUSALEM — One night last month, a top Israeli minister traveled the winding roads of the occupied West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

The meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mr. Abbas at the octogenarian Palestinian leader’s private residence — less than a 10-minute drive from the Israeli military’s regional headquarters — lasted only about 90 minutes, but it immediately made waves in Israel and the West Bank.

It was the first time in more than seven years that a senior Israeli minister was known to have met with Mr. Abbas. Israel’s previous government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had denigrated Mr. Abbas as an intransigent inciter of violence and never met with him.

The August meeting is the most prominent piece of evidence of a new, more cooperative approach to dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which senior members of Israel’s new government see as a bulwark against the Islamist militant group Hamas.

Since the government took office in June, other ministers have met with their Palestinian counterparts and Israeli officials said they were taking an array of concrete steps to benefit Palestinians economically, increase security cooperation and to change some policies that had been denounced as discriminatory.

“The Palestinian Authority is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and we are working to strengthen the P.A.,” Mr. Gantz told diplomats at a recent briefing.

But the budding entente has clear limits, given that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ruled out the possibility of peace talks and the creation of a Palestinian state. Those constraints have led some critics to characterize his government as a kind of Netanyahu-lite and to attack the Palestinian Authority for going along with the new measures.

Still, the policy represents a major shift from the recent Netanyahu years, when the government frequently undermined the Palestinian Authority and threatened to annex large parts of the West Bank, leading the authority to break off security cooperation with Israel. And the Biden administration is pressing both governments to improve relations as a step toward peace, even if no peace talks are in the offing.

In addition to the Gantz-Abbas meeting, two government ministers and President Isaac Herzog have spoken to Mr. Abbas by phone and at least five ministers have met with senior Palestinian officials.

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