Abbas will not find the ‘political horizon’ he is looking for

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abbas Momani - AFP)

Adnan Abu Amer

Al-Jazeera  /  January 17, 2022

The Palestinian president’s meetings with the Israeli defence minister are a sign of stagnation, not progress.

On December 28, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz held a meeting at the latter’s home. This was their second official encounter since the current Israeli government took power in June. The two had previously met in August and had had a phone call a few weeks beforehand.

Gantz and Abbas discussed deepening security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government and measures to ease the severe economic crisis in the West Bank.

The meeting was seen as controversial on both sides. Hamas and other Palestinian factions declared the meeting futile, as it did not advance in any way the Palestinian national cause, while various Israeli political figures, including members of the ruling coalition, saw it as the first step towards making undue “concessions” to the Palestinians.

It is unlikely that Gantz and Abbas did not expect the controversy that their meeting would cause. So why did they proceed with it anyway and what does the continuing engagement between the two mean for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

Political calculations

Having suffered international isolation under the previous United States administration, Abbas has been eager to return to the international arena after US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021 and a new Israeli government was formed without longtime Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the year.

The Palestinian president likely considered Gantz’s outreach in July as his best chance to do so. It is also possible he hopes that the Israeli defence minister may follow in the footsteps of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, who was willing to engage the Palestinian leadership and even sign a peace agreement with Yasser Arafat.

Abbas visited Gantz’s home seeking a “political horizon” in order to continue down the path of the Oslo Accords, of which he was the godfather. But in Israel, no one is talking about a political process with the Palestinians and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has made it quite clear there won’t be one under his government.

That is why, Abbas only managed to secure some economic measures from Gantz, which are meant to help alleviate the PA’s economic crisis. These included Israel sending an advance payment of $32m of tax money to the PA and providing more work permits for Palestinian workers and entry permits for Palestinian businessmen.

According to Israeli media, Gantz also informed Abbas that the Israeli government agreed to allow some 6,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and 3,500 from the Gaza Strip to be registered in the Palestinian population registry and issued identification documents. The registry is directly controlled by the Israeli authorities and the PA cannot add anyone to it without Israeli permission, leaving tens of thousands of Palestinians without documents.

For Gantz, engagement with Abbas allows him to take over the Palestinian file completely and build his domestic and international political standing using it. This initiative wins him favour with the Biden administration, which has been putting pressure on both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to resume talks. It also allows him to stand apart from Bennett, who, fearing that his right-wing allies may abandon him, is reluctant to engage directly with the PA.

The Israeli government, despite its far-right rhetoric, does have an interest in keeping close relations with the PA, particularly a security one.

The meeting with Abbas came amid an escalation of resistance operations in the West Bank throughout last year and an uptick in the violence of settlers and occupation forces against Palestinian civilians. These attacks have resulted in a number of Israeli and Palestinian deaths and injuries.

Both Gantz and Bennett know that the security of the hundreds of thousands of illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank depends on the PA’s cooperation. The Israeli defence minister sought and received such security guarantees secured from Abbas in exchange for the economic measures he offered.

The Israeli government is also propping up the PA because it fears that an internal collapse could lead to a Hamas resurgence in the West Bank.

No way forward

The only stakeholder in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that seemed to welcome the engagement between Abbas and Ganz was Washington. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan worked hard to bring the views of both sides closer on various issues and ensure that the meeting would take place.

But even the Biden administration is not pushing for a major reset in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the resumption of political negotiations. It seems it is satisfied with this low-level engagement, recognizing that resuming talks may be impossible at the moment due to internal Palestinian divisions, the right-wing government in Tel Aviv, and Washington’s own preoccupation with regional and international issues that it deems more pressing than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Although Bennett is publicly opposed to engagement with the PA, he has not stopped it because he does not want to upset Washington, especially at a time when the Iranian nuclear deal is being renegotiated. He sees no point in entering into a political confrontation with US allies so long as the ceiling of the Abbas-Gantz engagement does not go beyond discussing the economic conditions of the Palestinians.

This strategy of swapping limited economic benefits for deepening security cooperation may serve well the interests of the Israeli government and its US allies, but it does hardly anything for the Palestinians. A few hundred work and entry permits and an advance on tax money are hardly going to improve the lives of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation. They also cannot fix the deep legitimacy crisis that the PA is suffering from.

Asking for more security cooperation from the Palestinian security apparatus at a time when settler attacks on Palestinians are peaking would not help fix Abbas’s dismal public image in Palestine either. It may temporarily help Israel stem the attacks in the West Bank, but with the root causes of the violence remaining unaddressed, it is bound to surge again.

Furthermore, the mobilization across historic Palestine that we witnessed in 2021 against the Israeli occupation shows that the strategy of divide and rule no longer works. Treating the economic crisis in the West Bank as a separate issue from the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and within official Israeli borders would not bring peace and stability. In fact, the more the political demands of the Palestinians remain unaddressed, the greater the tension grows and sooner or later it may erupt into a third Intifada.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza