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Air warms between Israel, Palestinian Authority with rare phone calls

The phone calls from President Isaac Herzog and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas indicate a change of approach by Israel’s new government.
AWAD AWAD/AFP via Getty Images

In honor of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday July 19, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received phone calls from Israelis of the highest ranks: President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev.

It was Herzog and Abbas' second conversation in 10 days. The first took place the day after Herzog was sworn in on July 11. The two of them are acquainted from Herzog's years as a politician. As chair of the Labor Party, Herzog tried to promote the concept of the two-state solution. According to news reports, Abbas mediated a long and positive phone conversation between Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 12, signaling a possible amelioration in bilateral ties.

Gantz, the highest security figure in the government, also conversed with Abbas regarding operational issues. It was the first known conversation in years between the Palestinian leader and a high-placed Israeli minister. The last conversation took place in 2017, when Abbas conversed with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Gantz, the two discussed promoting security and economics in the region as well as relations between the two nations and the need for adopting trust-building steps, “which will assist the security and economy of the entire region.”

More than seven years since the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians exploded, there are now signs of warming between the sides. In April 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry led accelerated negotiations toward a political agreement, but they ended on a sour note. Three months later, Israel's 51-day operation against Hamas inflicted casualties on both sides.

Since then, Netanyahu’s strategy was to weaken Abbas and strengthen Hamas. From the time Donald Trump was elected US president in 2016, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian leaders lost more power to the point of irrelevance as the US Embassy was moved to Jerusalem and then the Abraham Accords totally removed the Palestinians from the equation.

Two dramatic changes have taken place recently: First, Trump was roundly defeated; second, a Democratic administration took over, headed by President Joe Biden, who was vice president under Barack Obama, who believed in the two-state solution.

The other change is the new government in Israel after the long Netanyahu regime. Together with the Biden administration, there is a sense of change and transformation in the air, despite the Israeli government being headed by right-wing Naftali Bennett. Bennett is very weak politically, dominated by center-left elements in his coalition. The US administration is working quietly behind the scenes to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. After Israel’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited both Israel and the Authority, establishing a foundation for diplomatic relations.

A senior member of Israel’s government told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “There is no doubt that we are seeing something new here. The Americans are quietly pushing for limiting construction in the West Bank and I estimate that it is only a matter of time until the Palestinian consulate reopens in east Jerusalem.”

According to the same source, the Americans are waiting for the new Israeli government to stabilize by the end of 2021, when the Israeli budget is approved. “Only then will things really start moving. The educated guess is that the Biden administration will then begin to push for renewing the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid are expected to soon visit Washington. Meanwhile, we’ll see more and more efforts to strengthen the status of Abbas and the Authority.”

Thus a new picture is emerging of thawing relations between Israel and the Authority, while the American administration provides the tailwind. Gone are the days when Netanyahu was Israel’s sole authority on security-political issues, and now dialogue with the Palestinian government in Ramallah is growing more possible.

True, security cooperation with the Palestinians was preserved even during the Netanyahu era, but now diplomatic relations are warming up as well. A minister in the new government told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We won’t be surprised if meetings are held in the near future.” According to the source, “Bennett and Lapid won’t meet with Abbas at this stage because that will involve the renewal of negotiations, and Gantz is in charge of that. There will be ministers from Meretz and from Labor who will meet with Abbas, but that will happen after the new government has become more established.”

Meretz’ Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej is conducting direct ties with high-level Palestinian agents in the Authority. A meeting with Abbas has not been arranged yet and it is likely that Bennett’s office had requested that Frej delay any meeting so as not to embarrass the right-wing elements of the government at such an early stage.

So where is all this going, when Israel’s current prime minister is a right-winger who pushed for annexation of West Bank settlements not long ago?

According to Arab affairs radio analyst Jacky Hugi, there is an atmospheric change and that is not a small thing. “We are witness to an ‘offensive’ of Israeli smiles toward the Authority and to Abbas, and American hugs are sent his way as well. This is certainly a better atmosphere after years of disconnection, during which the Palestinians were excluded from the whole process and in which they suffered a series of blows. The blows included the loss of American assistance allocations, the transferring of the American embassy to Jerusalem and of course the Abraham Accords that were signed behind their backs. But we need more time to see how all this develops.”

If we step back to view the history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over the last decade, last summer’s Abraham Accords emerge as a watershed. The agreements shattered the two-state paradigm and proved that peace agreements can be made with other Arab states without solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now that there is a new administration in the United States and a new government in Israel, the Palestinian issue has returned to our agenda.

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