Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)
Israel’s Defense Minister met with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas for a rare high-level meeting, but a source close to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insisted on Monday his government had no plans to restart talks of peace.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz met Abbas in Ramallah for what would have been the first direct talks between an Israeli cabinet member and the 86-year-old Palestinian leader in several years.
The meeting, which Gantz’s office said focused on “security policy, civil and economic issues,” took place just hours after Bennett returned from Washington where he met with US President Joe Biden.
Biden said he would urge Bennett to find ways “to advance peace, security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.”
According to a statement from the Defense Ministry, Gantz told Abbas that Israel “seeks to take measures which will strengthen the economy of the Palestinian Authority”.
“They also discussed the evolution of the security and economic situation in the West Bank and Gaza”, and agreed to “continue to communicate”, he added.
A source close to Bennett said the meeting he approved focused on “issues between the defense establishment and the Palestinian Authority.”
“There is no peace process with the Palestinians and neither will there be,” under Bennett’s leadership, said the source, who requested anonymity.
The Gantz-Abbas meeting included the head of the Israeli military wing responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, Ghasan Alyan, senior PA official Hussein Al Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.
Gantz’s office said he and Abbas held “a one-on-one meeting” after the broader discussions.
Al Sheikh confirmed the meeting on Twitter but the PA was not immediately available to comment on its content.
– Hamas against Abbas –
Bennett, 49, took office in June at the head of an eclectic coalition in which his hawkish party holds only a handful of seats.
He is a longtime opponent of the Palestinian state and the former head of a council that lobbies for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
Jewish settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law.
But despite Bennett’s personal views, his government sought to strengthen ties with the Palestinian Authority, which effectively collapsed under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in power from 2009 to June of this year.
Netanyahu, also a pro-settlements right-wing long vilified by Palestinians, further alienated Abbas through his close embrace with former US President Donald Trump, accused of extreme pro-Israel bias.
– Palestinian division –
Bennett’s government has indicated its desire to strengthen the Palestinian Authority amid concerns over a new conflict with Islamists Hamas who control Gaza under the Israeli blockade and are rivals of Abbas’ secular Fatah movement.
An 11-day conflict in May between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza marked the worst hostilities in the region since 2014 and unrest persisted despite an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
Hamas condemned the Abbas-Gantz meeting, accusing it “aggravates the Palestinian political division”.
Abbas has tightened his grip on the Palestinian Authority since his election in 2006.
He canceled elections scheduled for May and July which would have been the first Palestinian polls in 15 years.
The veteran leader cited Israel’s refusal to allow voting in annexed East Jerusalem, where the Palestinians are their future capital.
But some Palestinian experts said Abbas hesitated when it seemed clear Hamas was about to rout Fatah at the polls.
Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has also come under increasing global criticism over an alleged crackdown on internal opposition following the death in Palestinian custody of a prominent activist.
Last week, the United Nations and the European Union expressed concern over a series of arrests targeting key critics of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
© 2021 AFP