JERUSALEM – One night last month, an Israeli senior minister traveled the winding roads of the occupied West Bank to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
The meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mr. Abbas at the private residence of the octogenarian Palestinian leader – less than a 10-minute drive from the IDF regional headquarters – lasted only about 90 minutes, but it immediately made waves in Israel and the West Bank. .
It was the first time in more than seven years that a senior Israeli minister had met Mr. Abbas. The previous Israeli government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had denigrated Mr. Abbas as an intransigent uncompromising to violence and had never met him.
The August meeting is the most important evidence of a new, more cooperative approach to dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which senior members of Israel’s new government see as a bulwark against the militant Islamist group Hamas.
Since the government took office in June, other ministers have met with their Palestinian counterparts, and Israeli officials have said they are taking a series of concrete steps to benefit the Palestinians economically, to increase cooperation in this area. security and to change certain policies that had been denounced as discriminatory.
“The Palestinian Authority is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and we are working to strengthen the Palestinian Authority,” Gantz told diplomats at a recent briefing.
But the nascent agreement has clear boundaries, given that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ruled out the possibility of peace talks and the establishment of a Palestinian state. These constraints have led some critics to characterize his government as a sort of Netanyahu-lite and attack the Palestinian Authority for agreeing to the new measures.
Yet the policy represents a major shift from Netanyahu’s past years, when the government frequently undermined the Palestinian Authority and threatened to annex large parts of the West Bank, leading the authority to sever security cooperation with it. Israel. And the Biden administration urges the two governments to improve relations as a step towards peace, although no peace talks are in sight.
In addition to the Gantz-Abbas meeting, two government ministers and President Isaac Herzog spoke to Mr. Abbas by phone and at least five ministers met with senior Palestinian officials.
The government is also taking a series of practical steps that could improve the lives of many Palestinians.
The government has agreed to grant residency to thousands of undocumented family members of Palestinians in the West Bank who have lived in limbo without any formal legal status, often for years, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Last month, Israel decided to approve the construction of around 1,000 new Palestinian homes in an Israeli-controlled section of the occupied West Bank, an area where the government has rarely allowed Palestinians to build.
The government loaned the authority $ 156 million to help it cope with a financial crisis, said Israeli regional cooperation minister Esawi Frej. And it increased the quota of Palestinian workers allowed to work in Israel, where the minimum wage is about three times higher than in Palestinian communities, by 15,000.
The Israeli military has granted Palestinian security forces greater freedom of movement in areas under Israeli security control, according to an Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues . Palestinian officers complained that the need for Israeli permission to enter certain areas had hampered active criminal investigations.
The military is reducing Israeli raids in areas under Palestinian security control, the official said.
Israel and the authority have started high-level talks on introducing 4G mobile phone technology to the occupied territories, officials said. Palestinian telecommunications companies need Israel to free up the frequencies they can use for service. The West Bank currently has 3G, while Gaza still limps with 2G.
Mr. Frej said that Israel is also examining potential plans for economic development in the West Bank.
Palestinians are largely happy with the new policies, with 56% seeing it as positive, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Investigations.
Haitham al-Natsheh, 34, a resident of Hebron who has not had legal status since 1991, said he was overwhelmed with joy when he learned that Israel would offer residency to people like him.
“It was a sweet feeling,” he said. “We have been through so many problems. Honestly, if there are measures that are meant to make our lives easier, we support them. “
Nimrod Novik, analyst for the Israel Policy Forum, said the new policies marked “a radical departure from Netanyahu’s strategy, which would weaken authority to the point of crumbling before letting it breathe.”
As beneficial as the new approach may be to the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s outright rejection of the Palestinian state has opened it up to criticism that it offers only a milder version of Netanyahu’s view of the Palestinian conflict as a problem to be managed rather than solved.
Mr Bennett has said he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and said last week that he would not meet with Mr Abbas.
But even if he changed his mind, any attempt to enter state negotiations would likely bring down the government, a fragile coalition of various parties with mutually exclusive positions on the issue.
This closed door has led to accusations that Mr. Abbas was abandoning Palestinian nationalism to accept what critics call “economic peace”.
Islamist groups criticized him for meeting Mr. Gantz, while secular critics accused him of collaborating with the Israeli occupation.
“It’s amazing,” said Nasser al-Qudwa, the former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations and the nephew of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. “They are ready to engage in this process which is devoid of any recognition of Palestinian national rights. “
Even as the Israeli government takes steps to improve the Palestinian economy and security, it is committed to continuing to expand settlements in the West Bank. He also continued to demolish Palestinian homes built without a permit in areas where permits are rarely issued, and to use a firm hand against Palestinians in protests and clashes.
A spokesman for Mr. Abbas did not respond to a request for comment, but Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary-general of the Fatah Central Committee, said Mr. Abbas rejected criticism that he was selling the Palestinian dream of ‘a state for good. economic stability.
People who spoke to Mr. Abbas recently said he understands the political limitations of the current Israeli government and accepts these cooperative measures as a good starting point to engage.
He is also following the advice of the Biden administration, which is pushing the measures as part of what it touts as a long-term process to advance efforts to end the conflict and achieve a two-state solution.
In a pre-recorded speech at the United Nations on Friday, Abbas appeared to refer to the measures, saying “we will strive to be successful in this endeavor in order to create conditions conducive to rapid progress towards a final political settlement ending the Israeli occupation. . “
But he also set a deadline for this settlement. Calling for an international peace conference to resolve the conflict, he gave Israel a one-year ultimatum to withdraw from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, or he would seek a ruling from the International Court of Justice on the legality of occupation.
U.S. officials recognize the current limits of “what can be viable and what can be on the table,” as State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week, and are focusing on l improvement of the conditions of the Palestinians and the relations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Governments.
President Biden, speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution, adding: “We are a long way from that goal at this time, but we must never allow ourselves to give up the possibility of progress.”
Some analysts have argued that an approach that starts with a focus on economics could pave the way for authority to gain more autonomy.
Small economic initiatives could help build the confidence needed to open the door to bigger changes, such as Israeli authorities allowing Palestinian tax authorities to be present in ports or granting Palestinians greater freedom of movement, said Joel Braunold, Managing Director of S. Daniel Abraham. Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.
“This process could allow the Palestinian Authority to achieve real victories,” he said. “It could lead to changes that make a real difference in the lives of average Palestinians. “