On Sunday night, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Ramallah, where he met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the first meeting between Abbas and any Israeli minister since 2010. The next day, Prime Minister Bennett’s office issued a statement—attributed to a source close to the prime minister—that Bennett had authorized the meeting, but that it was strictly about security issues and that there is not now nor will there be a political process with the Palestinians. The meeting—both its existence and its substance —and the ways in which it was simultaneously embraced and rebuffed across the Israeli political spectrum open a window into the Israeli government’s thinking vis-à-vis the Palestinians, and also reveal the ways in which this government represents both continuity with and a break from the previous longstanding Netanyahu government.
No matter how much Bennett or Gantz insist that the meeting with Abbas and the related Israeli policy gestures draw the line at security considerations, they clearly go beyond a security scope. The inclusion of Palestinian Authority intelligence chief Majed Faraj in the meeting indicates that security coordination was on the agenda, but Gantz also brought with him offers to give the PA a half billion shekel advance on the tax revenues that Israel collects on its behalf, allow more building permits in Area C, issue another 16,000 work permits for Palestinians inside Israel, remove fees on Palestinian VAT payments, and legalize 5,000 foreign national spouses of Palestinians to give them official West Bank residency permits with a timeline to address the thousands more who remain in legal limbo. All of these measures impact security inasmuch as they improve ordinary Palestinians’ quality of life and give them fewer reasons to succumb to despair, notwithstanding that they are only the tip of the iceberg that needs to be tackled, but it strains the bounds of credulity to portray them as being solely about security.
This is an example of beginning to restore the often-derided but desperately needed political horizon that is the first step to getting the Israeli-Palestinian issue back on a more productive track. While Bennett is undoubtedly being truthful in his assertion that there will be no political process on his watch, there does need to be a political dimension in Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians, and this is an initial indication of what that can look like. Providing an advance to the PA on tax revenues so that it doesn’t collapse is first and foremost a security measure given what the security situation in the West Bank would look like absent the Palestinian Authority Security Forces. Family unification permits and streamlining VAT payments for businesses are an altogether different category, designed not only to provide the PA with some wins that allow it to assert some badly needed political credibility but to provide Palestinians with some evidence that Israel is sensitive to the constantly mounting challenges they face. These measures are all examples of shrinking the conflict but not shrinking the occupation, and if that remains the sum total of what Israel does in the years ahead, it will have done little beyond affixing a bandaid to a gaping and gushing wound. But as a first step, demonstrating a recognition of the need for a political dimension that goes beyond a strict security dimension is cautiously encouraging.
When Bennett decries a political process, he’s not wrong given the current landscape. Without the necessary work on the Palestinian side to build up the PA’s governing capacity and address its glaring democratic and accountability deficits, to rebuild and restructure Palestinian institutions that are responsive toward Palestinian needs and concerns, and to establish even a modicum of trust in Palestinian government, any political process will fail. Without the necessary work on the Israeli side to stabilize its political system after over two years of constant chaos and dysfunction, and ingrain in Israelis’ minds that the Palestinians are not going anywhere and that Israel cannot permanently occupy the West Bank unless Israelis are willing to cement into their lives for another half century the violence and instability that comes along with that, any political process will fail. That does not, however, dispose of the need to address Israeli-Palestinian issues through a prism of political steps, and the lack of a political process right now—as I’ve argued before—is creating space for moves that serve stability and the political dimensions simultaneously. Israeli domestic politics requires everyone on the Israeli side to brush aside any suggestions that the subject of the Gantz-Abbas conclave was about more than security, but that doesn’t make the denials convincing.
Israeli ministerial engagement with Abbas for the first time in more than a decade also shows where the Bennett government is in line with Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies and where it breaks from them. The repeated insistence that a political process will not even be considered, let alone started, is very much in line with what Netanyahu wrought over the course of twelve years at Balfour Street, where he did nothing to prepare Israelis for the inevitability of one day having to face the Palestinian issue head-on and not being able to keep deferring it to the end of time. On the other hand, with Bennett’s talk of shrinking the conflict and Gantz’s explicit statement following the meeting that the PA must be strengthened and that doing so is the only way to weaken Hamas, we see a genuine transition away from Netanyahu’s approach. Netanyahu wanted to portray the PA as no less problematic than Hamas in order to keep them both in place and in a weakened state, and his commitment to a weakened and barely functional PA was so complete that he in many ways gave Hamas a wider berth than he gave the PA and Abbas. Taking steps to strengthen the PA and publicly acknowledge its importance to Israel, and even treating it more like a partner than a pariah, is the opposite tack than the one taken by Netanyahu, and it hopefully signals the possibility of progress building upon progress.
It is impossible not to view this in light of Bennett’s visit to Washington and his meetings with President Biden, Tony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, and Jake Sullivan, with Gantz going to meet Abbas hours after Bennett’s plane touched back down in Tel Aviv. During the Trump years, U.S. engagement with Israel was designed to be zero sum with regard to the Palestinians, and the immediate evidence following the first Biden-Bennett meeting is that U.S. engagement under Biden is trying to avoid a false Manichean binary. If the new Israeli gestures to the Palestinians—which were undoubtedly encouraged by the U.S.—are a sign of something, it is that Biden is trying to shape a dynamic in which there is an American effort to help both sides and respond to the requests and concerns of each. The loud grumbling coming from Israeli voices who want Biden to do more on Iran and give Israel a wider berth on Palestinian issues, and the loud grumbling coming from Palestinian voices who want Biden to take a more forceful line with Israel and demand much more far-ranging steps, is not going to dissipate. But for those who were looking for the initial stages of a U.S. reset, the Gantz-Abbas meeting is a sign that it is happening.