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Confidence-building measures with Israel trigger mixed reactions among PA leaders

Palestinian leaders exhibit varying reactions toward the confidence-building measures with Israel.
People gather during a demonstration demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli detention facilities, Ramallah, West Bank, Aug. 29, 2021.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The so-called confidence-building steps recently announced by the Israeli government to strengthen the Palestinian Authority (PA) provoked mixed reactions among PA leaders. This follows a meeting in Ramallah Aug. 30 between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Security Minister Benny Gantz.

The Abbas-Gantz meeting sparked criticism and angry popular and factional reactions, especially as it neglected the political dimension, rather than focusing on the security and economic aspects. The meeting was preceded by repeated statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he will not participate in launching a political process with the PA and will not allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Hours after the meeting, the Palestinian minister of civil affairs and lead liaison with the Israelis, Hussein al-Sheikh, announced that the Israeli government approved 5,000 family reunification requests for Palestinians. The next day, he tweeted that 4G mobile communications will soon be available in Palestine. Sheikh is one of the prominent leaders in the Fatah movement and is very close to Abbas. He was one of the key players in arranging the Abbas-Gantz meeting and the first to announce it in a tweet, saying that the meeting discussed “Palestinian-Israeli relations in all aspects.” 

Gantz’s office said, however, that the meeting discussed security, civil and economic policy issues, without referring to the political issue. It also confirmed Israel will loan the PA 500 million Israeli shekels ($155 million) to alleviate its financial crunch. The loan will be reimbursed from tax funds Israel normally collects on behalf of the Palestinians.

All these moves apparently did not please Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh who is also a member of the Central Committee of the Fatah movement. In statements Aug. 31, he said, “We want to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital with the right of return, not the continuation of the status quo and improvement of the living conditions under occupation.” His statements reflected his position on the announced steps with the Israeli side, but remarkably, they were not published on the website of the Palestinian official news agency Wafa.

The difference in opinion regarding the recent rapprochement between the PA and Israel was apparent between Shtayyeh and Sheikh. While Shtayyeh stressed the need of ending occupation rather than improving living conditions, Sheikh posted on his Twitter account a photo of dozens of citizens lining up in front of the General Authority of Civil Affairs headquarters in Ramallah. He commented, “People demanding family reunification flock to update their data at the offices of the General Authority of Civil Affairs Offices. Who should we believe? Those who cling to their right and appreciate achievements no matter how small or those throwing in slogans and promises.”

It seems that the PA's recent rapprochement with Israel was not made with the knowledge of many Palestinian institutions and leaders. A source in the PLO Executive Committee told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the committee was not consulted with any of these steps. 

After he was named prime minister, Shtayyeh put forward a plan for disengagement with Israel and pushed hard to implement it. He banned the import of calves from Israel, and made foreign tours to import oil from abroad to dispense with Israeli electricity. His plan seems to have hit the wall and failed. Not only the recently announced confidence-building steps go against his plan, they rather aim to strengthen the relationship between Israel and the PA, all with US support and blessings.

All of the recent confidence-building measures, which fall under the heading of improving the living conditions of the Palestinians and supporting the PA, are the outcome of pressure exerted by the US administration. It seems the PA has been dealing with these measures positively, despite the Israeli government's insistence not to discuss the political issues. The PA believes that these steps could increase its internal popularity, tame the tension and anger in the street against it, and restore its relations with the United States.

During a meeting with reporters Sept. 7, Shtayyeh affirmed that the US administration has nothing to offer, noting that Gantz came to Ramallah at the end of last month to talk about matters not related to the political aspect. Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper quoted him describing the recent movements as a “false pregnancy” and affirming that nothing has been put on the table, and no one has anything to fill the void — not the Americans, nor the Arabs nor the Israelis.

Shtayyeh confirmed that Abbas raised the political issues during his meeting with Gantz, but the latter offered instead construction permits in Israeli-controlled Area C, 5,000 family reunification request approvals and 500 million shekels. He argued that this is a maneuver to contain the conflict without resolving it. “We will not say no to those offering facilitations to the Palestinian people, but we affirm that the problem consists of the occupation, Jerusalem and the fragmentation of geography,” he noted.

It seems that the differences that emerged between the leaders of the PA and Fatah do not revolve in essence about how to deal with Israel, but rather fall within the scope of the efforts of the internal parties to gear up for the post-Abbas stage. 

Writer and political analyst Jihad Harb told Al-Monitor that the contradictory statements between the leaders of Fatah and the PA reflect differences among them within the framework of the upcoming stage's arrangements. “All parties are trying to show the public opinion the extent of their commitment to the central issues,” he said.

Harb added, “There are no fundamental differences between these leaders. Shtayyeh and the members of the Central Committee and the PA are all pushing for services-related demands, including the clearance funds, financial transfers, external support and other living-related issues, and not only political issues. They do not disagree on approach, line of thought and politics. Their differences are related to their personal future arrangements, especially in light of the exceptional circumstances we are living in and the absence of a clear mechanism for democratic transition in the event of a sudden vacancy of the position of the president.”

He said that internal rivalries do not mean systematic opposition. “Even the government's program of economic disengagement was disputed and the experience of banning the import of calves from Israel as the first step in that program was a failure,” Harb concluded.

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