Gantz’s meeting with Abbas marks latest move in his role of serving Israel’s security elite

Gantz visits the fence separating Gaza from Israel (AFP)

Shir Hever

Middle East Eye  /  January 5, 2022

Defence minister has pushed privatization and outsourcing to benefit Israel’s security sector but still needs PA to keep Palestinians under control.

The meeting between Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place last week in Gantz’s private home, has been covered intensively in the press, because it was the first formal meeting between Abbas and an Israeli official in Israel in 11 years. 

The meeting was heavily criticized by the Israeli right wing. Minister of Housing and Construction Ze’ev Elkin, a member of Gantz’s own coalition, said: “Inviting home a man who insists paying salaries to the murderers of Israelis is a mistake in my opinion. 

“Saying that if Abu Mazen [Abbas] will not be hosted in Gantz’s spacious living room it will lead to a third Intifada, no one believes that.” 

Alluding to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s governing coalition, which includes Ra’am, a party representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, the opposition Likud party said: “The Israeli-Palestinian government of Bennett brings Abu Mazen and the Palestinians back on the agenda.”

Following the talks, Gantz announced a series of gestures towards the Palestinian Authority (PA), including an advance of 100m shekels ($32m) on the taxes Israel collects on its behalf, recognizing the residency of 9,500 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip without Israeli documentation, and granting entry permits into Israel to a few Palestinian businesspeople and PA VIPs. 

Abbas, meanwhile, had other expectations, and hoped to kick-start the peace process, as well as obtain reassurances from Gantz that the raging settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank would be checked by the Israeli military. 

Unpopular meeting

Abbas agreed to meet Gantz in his home, despite the fact that the defence minister is known to Palestinians as a war criminal who boasted about killing 1,364 Palestinians during the 2014 invasion of Gaza, named by Israel as Operation Protective Edge.

The meeting, therefore, has been unpopular both among Israelis and Palestinians, which begs the question: what prompted Gantz to invite Abbas and to offer these minor concessions? 

The answer lies in Gantz’s politics during the seven months since Bennett’s government was sworn in. During this time, despite Gantz’s Blue and White party – also known as the “party of the generals” – having only eight seats in the Knesset, the defence minister has successfully pushed a series of policies to benefit the Israeli security forces, and especially senior commanders and arms companies. 

Those policies include increasing the defence budget by 12 percent and then authorizing an extra-budgetary allocation of 7.3bn shekels ($2.33bn) to the military without review, and for a confidential purpose. 

Gantz also deflected two reforms, one to shorten the length of obligatory service in the military, and the second to reduce the generous pensions drawn by retired officers from a relatively young age. 

A sharp increase in the monthly payment to regular soldiers was also overseen by Gantz, and last week a long press conference by the military was dedicated mostly to promising better quality food for its soldiers – as opposed to discussing Israeli strategic plans regarding Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

‘Repetitive and controversial missions’

Part of the campaign waged by Gantz and the military brass to benefit the armed forces was a reformulation of the rules of engagement to allow the use of lethal fire against unarmed Palestinians even in flight, which is nothing short of a licence to murder.

Professor Yagil Levy, author of the book Whose Life is Worth More, told Middle East Eye: “Soldiers are rising up against the task of policing the occupied territory. 

“They are frustrated by repetitive and controversial missions for minimal rewards and with low chances of success. 

“The army tries to appease this sector with pay rises and loosening the rules of engagement, but unrest among the soldiers has increased recently.”

Gantz’s strategy to benefit the security sector hinges on privatization and outsourcing.
 
The daily terrorizing of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, especially in Area C, which is under full Israeli civil and military control, has been outsourced to the settlers, who conduct regular attacks against Palestinians while the army turns a blind eye. 

Meanwhile, surveillance is outsourced to private companies such as the NSO Group

Even intelligence operations are partially outsourced, as was revealed when the organization NGO Monitor provided Israel’s Ministry of Defence with baseless allegations which were then used by Gantz to designate six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist organizations.

Bennett has ‘little choice’

All this, however, is not enough. Levy adds that: “Gantz recognizes the danger embodied in the limited control which the army exercises over its policing branch in Area C, creating the potential for conflagration. 

“Gantz trades the resources that he has with the PA, because he has no other option. If he had control over the policing army, he would use it to restrain the settlers, as they are the cause of violence, and not the Palestinians.”

As much as the Israeli right-wing despises Abbas and the PA, his meeting with Gantz shows how essential the authority has become to the Israeli security sector. 

Israeli soldiers are chafing at their role as a colonial police force, and the officers are concerned about their pensions and future second careers in the arms industry. 

Without the cooperation of the PA, the Israeli army has no means at its disposal to suppress Palestinian resistance, short of disproportionate violence.

To avoid a breakdown of the status quo and to keep the Palestinians under control, Bennett has little choice but to give Gantz a free hand to outsource essential military operations to external actors, even if it means being denounced as an “Israeli-Palestinian government”.

Shir Hever is a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East