Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Abbas meets Gantz in Rosh HaAyin (January 3, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: Why is it significant that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) met with Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz in the latter’s home last week?

A: It is significant, first, because under Netanyahu and now Bennett, Israeli and Palestinian leaders rarely if ever meet. The last time Abu Mazen visited Israel for a high-level meeting was in 2010. Nor is it accidental that the meeting was with Gantz, who has emerged (he visited Abu Mazen in Ramallah last August) under the Bennett government and in the eyes of the Biden administration as the senior Israeli leader who holds the Palestinian file.

Apropos Biden, note that the Rosh HaAyin meeting not far from Tel Aviv took place shortly after US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Israel and urged Jerusalem to be more forthcoming toward the PA. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others have recently objected to Israeli plans to build a new Jewish neighborhood at Atarot on the Jerusalem-Ramallah border. Blinken has also pressured for Israel to relent and allow Washington to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to liaising with the PA.

Prime Minister Bennett, under heavy pressure from his right-religious mainstream base, firmly opposes reopening the consulate, which President Trump closed in 2018. Bennett’s associates describe him as annoyed by constant Biden administration pressure over the Palestinian issue. But the Sullivan visit and the need for Israel to appear to be forthcoming toward the PA help explain why it was important for Bennett that a Gantz-Abu Mazen meeting take place.

The meeting had a security dimension. Over the past two months, violent incidents of rock-throwing by Palestinians and vigilante attacks by settlers have been on the increase, particularly in the northern West Bank. But it also had a social dimension: gifts were exchanged; Gantz’s soldier son was introduced. The meeting was important for both Abu Mazen and Gantz at the personal-political level.

Criticism of the meeting from the political extremes in both Israel and Palestine was telling. Equally striking was the contrast between Israeli and Palestinian accounts, official and semi-official, of what was talked about--and what this says about politics on both sides.

Q: Let’s start with Gantz. How did he describe the meeting? Why did Gantz need it? Why did the Bennett government need it?

A: According to Gantz’s spokespersons, the meeting dealt mainly with economic gestures and benefits for the PA: early tax reimbursements, expanded entry permits to Israel for Palestinian vehicles and VIPs, more flexible zoning and building permits in the West Bank, etc. Israel will now legalize the status of nearly 10,000 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Yes, you read that correctly; the right to legalize residency in Ramallah is part and parcel of 55 years and counting of Israeli occupation.) These Israeli gestures, which commenced when Gantz and Abu Mazen met in August, in turn fuel a variety of expanded cooperation programs in fields like energy and water.

But Gantz can also claim that the meeting was necessary to ensure West Bank security tranquility for the Bennett government. That, reportedly, is how he sold the importance and urgency of the meeting to Bennett, who hopes to hold onto some settler support despite being in a coalition with leftists and Arabs.

Turning to political aspects, Gantz, lest we forget, has eight mandates in the Knesset and claims the mantle of centrist leader. Every so often, someone leaks the ‘news’ that the Likud still talks about him as the possible leader of an alternative government, based on the Gantz-Netanyahu rotation agreement that was scuttled by the advent of the Bennett-Lapid coalition last June.  

Gantz has leverage. That’s why Likud criticism of the Rosh HaAyin meeting concentrated on the meeting but not on Gantz. And that is why PM Bennett has to tolerate Gantz’s gestures to the Palestinians.

Gantz can also exploit the meeting to attract political support on the left and center from Yesh Atid, Labor and Meretz supporters. Then too, it doesn’t hurt to be seen in Washington as the man to go to in Israel on Palestinian matters.

Q: In Palestinian eyes, Gantz’s description of recycled ‘economic peace’ benefits for the Palestinian Authority as the primary purpose of the meeting can hardly justify such a high-level summit at Gantz’s home.

A: This is where the Gantz-Abu Mazen meeting gets interesting. Palestinian accounts read very differently from those provided by Gantz’s ministry. Abu Mazen, according to these sources, did not visit Gantz in order to hear about humanitarian and economic gestures that could be delivered by a phone call. Rather, he had a security and political agenda. The Palestinian-Israeli situation is on the verge of explosion, he reportedly warned Gantz. West Bank settlers and Temple Mount fanatics need to be restrained.

Palestinian Authority security chief Majed Faraj, who accompanied Abu Mazen, reportedly demanded that the IDF yield total security authority in West Bank cities (Area A) to the PA and redeploy out of Area B. In effect, this Palestinian demand would restore the security situation that existed before the second Intifada, which erupted in September 2000. Hussein al-Sheikh, PA civil affairs minister who also attended, called the meeting with Gantz “the last chance before the explosion and finding ourselves at a dead end”. He added that it reflected the need for a political horizon.

(Notably, Gantz also acknowledged that the meeting discussed “deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence--for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians”. But he brought no senior security officers to the get-together other than Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Major General Rassan Aliyan.)

Q: What can we learn from criticism of the meeting by Israel’s Likud and far right political opposition and, on the Palestinian side, by Hamas and other critics of Abu Mazen?

A: Bennett was reportedly taken aback by the social nature of the visit. The Gantz-Abu Mazen meeting had been presented to him in advance as mandated by the need to coordinate better security in the northern West Bank, and instead it reeked of ‘Oslo days’ when the two sides frequently exchanged friendly visits. The Israeli right, even within the coalition (ministers Elkin, Saar, Liberman), criticized Gantz for hosting a meeting with someone “who pays salaries to murderers”. Beyond the coalition, the Likud warned that “dangerous concessions . . . are only a matter of time”. The extreme right Religious Zionism party accused the Bennett government of resurrecting an irrelevant Abu Mazen and “bringing him back to center stage”. Needless to say, coalition members from Labor and Meretz praised the Gantz-Abu Mazen meeting.

The totality of responses from left and right served as a timely reminder as to just how polarized this coalition is on the Palestinian issue. That’s why one of its founding principles is the understanding that it can hang together only as long as no peace process initiative with the Palestinians takes place. Still, the kind of ‘explosion’ that Abu Mazen and his advisers warned of could conceivably be as destructive to coalition stability as a peace process.

On the Palestinian side, criticism of Abu Mazen was even worse. One cartoon on social media showed him polishing Gantz’s shoes. The scope of Palestinian anger, according to Yedioth Aharonot’s veteran Arab affairs commentator Smadar Perry, was “astonishing”: only senior PA officials in Ramallah did not attack the “meeting of shame” in Rosh HaAyin. Abu Mazen himself made no public comment on the get-together.

Q: Bottom line?

A: The meeting was important politically for Abu Mazen and Gantz. Abu Mazen, aged 86 and supported in polls by barely one-quarter of Palestinians, has nothing to lose. Those same Palestinian polls indicate that 60 percent of Palestinians are interested in the very confidence-building steps and economic bonuses that the Gantz meeting delivered.

For his part, Gantz has everything to gain politically.

Still, at the level of substance it’s a good idea to keep the Gantz-Abbas meeting in proportion. Palestinian leaders regularly warn of impending disaster every few months. Abbas has no illusions about fostering a renewed peace process. He refused to agree, as a gesture, even to cancel Palestinian accusations against Israeli officers--including Gantz himself, when he was still in the IDF--at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Israel’s nightly intrusions into Ramallah and Jenin, which commenced 20 years ago, are not about to end, especially with Hamas on the rise in the West Bank.

The Israeli right’s complaints against Abu Mazen--paying salaries to imprisoned terrorists, Holocaust denier--are as old as the Oslo Accords. The right knows that Israel has no better alternative. Abu Mazen keeps the peace. He keeps alive the possibility of peaceful coexistence. What will follow his departure one of these months or years is unpredictable.

That is why these meetings are so crucial.