YOSSI MEKELBERG January 15, 2022
When it comes to the Palestinian issue there seems to be a division of labor in Israel between the “bad cop,”Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and the “good(ish) cop,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
The first doesn’t miss an opportunity to insist that as long as he is at the helm there won’t be any peace process, and he publicly snubs Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas altogether. Gantz, on the other hand,has already met Abbas twice, including a rare meeting in Israel, when the latter came to see him at his home after more than a decade without visiting Israel. It is the choreography of these meetings as much as what is discussed that is intriguing, and raises the question whether there is more to these meetings than meets the eye.
Realistically, the path to peace based on a two-state solution is strewn with insurmountable hurdles, and the talks between Abbas and Gantz were more about taking measures aimed at preventing the situation between the two sides from exploding rather than discussing any long-term solution.
For the Palestinian leadership, there is very little room for maneuver. On the one hand it needs to prevent a major confrontation with Israel that would surely lead to many casualties and much destruction, and possibly the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. Furthermore, the survival of its leadership is dependent on its relations with the Israeli authorities, and for the latter to ease the economic pressures and the other hardships that the Palestinian population suffers daily would be a lifeline, even if a short-term one. For Abbas, the dilemma is that he has overstayed his welcome in power, this month completing 17 years of a four-year term. He thus lacks popular legitimacy, and should an uprising erupt in the West Bank it would be directed as much against him, his authority and his government, as against the Israeli occupation.
Israel is by far the more powerful party in this forced partnership, but its political fragility doesn’t allow it to form a coherent and long-term strategy toward its Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza. Its behavior may look at first glance like part of a grand plan to continue the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza until the Palestinians give up on their aspirations for self-determination. However, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians are not only a distorted and bankrupt version of Zionism, but represent a reaction to domestic political pressures rather than any kind of coherent strategy.
It is not entirely clear whether Bennett and Gantz are coordinating their double act in relation to the PA, or whether the fragility of the coalition is allowing some wiggle room for individual ministers to pursue their own agenda, especially within the realm of their ministerial responsibilities.
The Abbas–Gantz meetings need to be seen in this context of the absence of a peace process, and from the Israeli side purely as an exercise in conflict management.
In the curious circumstances of the coalition government, which has the tiniest of majorities possible in the Knesset, the defense minister commands a bigger parliamentary group than the prime minister. As recently as last week, Bennett told the Knesset that he had no plans to initiate peace talks with the Palestinians, and that his main concern was maintaining stability in the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention the Iran issue — although he could foresee further hostilities breaking out with Hamas in Gaza. Yet one of his senior ministers hosted at home one of the few foreign leaders he himself refuses to meet.
The Abbas–Gantz meetings need to be seen in this context of the absence of a peace process, and from the Israeli side purely as an exercise in conflict management. Being aware of the widespread disapproval of Abbas and his government machine among his own people, while recognising the PA’s importance in maintaining its security, the Israeli government is attempting to prop up the PA just enough to ensure its survival.
However, in the meetings between Abbas and Gantz it became clear that there were marked differences in expectations. Israel is not ready to go beyond throwing some crumbs to the PA, for instance by transferring $32 million as an advance on the taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA, which is theirs anyway; issuing additional permits for business people and VIP passes for senior PA officials that will allow them to move with fewer restrictions; and settling the residency rights of about 10,000 people in the West Bank and Gaza who currently have no legal status.
If that was all Gantz was ready to offer Abbas on behalf of his government, and in return expect the Palestinian government or public to see it as an achievement, it was a waste of a meeting. Palestinians are thoroughly disillusioned and don’t see any sign of political change on the horizon. All they witness and experience is an oppressive occupation maintained by the heavy presence of Israel’s security forces, and the ongoing construction of more and more housing in the settlements, which means the loss of their land and with it any hope of a viable Palestinian state.
Abbas wanted to hear from Gantz that Israel would allow more Palestinian construction in Area C, which is under complete Israeli control; that more would be done to curb the expansion of the settlements and settlers’ violence against Palestinians; and that there would be an economic plan to alleviate the dire conditions in the West Bank. He went back to Ramallah with no assurances on any of these issues, and consequently with his position further compromised. By visiting Israel and meeting Gantz he had spent the little political capital that remained at his disposal, leaving himself open to accusations that for the sake of staying in power he was ready to humiliate not only himself but his people too.
Meetings between high-level politicians naturally create high expectations, and when they don’t even come close to these expectations, especially in a situation that is extremely volatile to begin with, it gives traction to those who support a return to alternative means, including armed struggle. The meeting between Gantz and Abbas only highlighted the schism between the two sides in their understanding of the severity and urgency of the situation. And without a coordinated Israeli–Palestinian plan to improve conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, one that has the active support of the international community and a clear horizon for a just solution that will lead to peace, the situation is most likely to lead only to violent confrontation.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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Categories: Arab World, Arabic, Asia, Israel, Middle East, Palestine
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