GABRIEL MITCHELL, JERUSALEM
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas visited the home of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and for a hot minute everyone forgot about Covid19.
Like so many countries around the world, Israel is sinking back into the coronavirus quagmire. Numbers are on the rise. Government policies intended to mitigate the crisis are changing daily. No one has officially called for a national lockdown, but we could effectively be there in a matter of weeks regardless.
Omicron dominates our news cycle; however, for a fleeting moment last week, Israel’s political establishment and national media turned its attention to the unimportant town of Rosh HaAyin. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to love about Rosh HaAyin—especially if you enjoy learning about Yemenite culture and the allure of Israeli suburb life. It has plenty of charm. But rarely, if ever, has its name been uttered so many times as it has this week by politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens.
Why? Because Rosh HaAyin’s second most famous resident (curious who is Number 1? Ask Wikipedia!), Defense Minister Benny Gantz, hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a one-on-one meeting at his home. This sort of headline shouldn’t produce such a dramatic reaction, but in fairness this was the first time Abbas was in Israel for an official meeting since 2010.
2010 is the the same year the iPad was released.
That’s a long time.
Like a rare visit from an estranged family member or friend after many years of separation, the powwow dubbed by many as “The Rosh HaAyin Summit” served as the latest reminder that we are as far away from brokering peace between Israelis and Palestinians as we have ever been. And the critics had plenty to say about it:
Hamas is not happy with the meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Benny Gantz. This cartoon was published by a Hamas-affiliated website. (The man speaking to reporters is Hussein al-Sheikh, who says the meeting was productive and positive). pic.twitter.com/yzeHU3in8A
— Khaled Abu Toameh (@KhaledAbuToameh) December 28, 2021
There’s no “gov’t approach” because it’s just a loose alliance of feudal fiefdoms, not a gov’t.
Arieh King pushes demolitions in E. Jslm., the Civil Admin settler regime in Area C, and Ayelet Shaked’s Interior Ministry in Walajeh etc.
Gov’t? Just an “innocent” bystander. https://t.co/DyvVt6miM4
— Daniel Seidemann (@DanielSeidemann) December 29, 2021
These tweets are relatively tame. Trust me, you can find much worse out there. But they point to a common critique that cannot be ignored: Neither Israeli nor Palestinian leadership has the public legitimacy to engage with one another. Israel’s “change government” under the leadership of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has a bare bones majority in the Knesset, held together by a narrow set of common interests that does not include solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Israeli pollster Dahlia Scheindlin expertly articulated, the change this government seeks “could apply to every issue but one.”
Abbas’s position is not much better. We are talking about the same PA president who is completing his 17th year of a four year term (he was elected to office on January 9, 2005), and whose relative weakness vis-à-vis both Israel and Hamas has prompted him to clutch ever tighter to the reigns and clamp down on public dissent. According to Palestinian public opinion expert Khalil Shikaki, three out of four Palestinians want Abbas to resign, and the cancellation of Palestinian elections was one of the triggers for the last round of violence between Israel and Hamas in May 2021.
So, if these criticisms are legit, is there a silver lining?
If you believe that dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian officials reduces the possibility of widespread violence, then yes, this was a positive development. Since 2010, the last time Abbas was officially in Israel for a meeting, there have been three major rounds of violence between Israel and Hamas. In May 2021, that violence spilled beyond Gaza and into Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Israeli cities with both Jewish and Arab residents, reminding many in Israel that efforts to “shrink” the conflict without addressing the structural issues that plague Israeli-Palestinian relations have a limited effect. Reengaging the Palestinian Authority, as unappealing as it may be for many Israelis, may be the only way to stave off another round of violence and to buoy moderate voices in the West Bank.
IDF end-of-year stats for 2021. Terror attacks up in West Bank – 3-4 year highs. Important context for Abbas mtg w Gantz last night. Also indicative the quiet from Gaza since May war. Israel says Hamas deterred/recovering, more likely it’s bc econ measures restored & growing pic.twitter.com/rOJ9iykkXU
— Neri Zilber (@NeriZilber) December 29, 2021
Few are better positioned to do this than Benny Gantz, the former IDF Chief of Staff and former prime ministerial candidate who, according to Donald Trump, “wanted to make a deal” with the Palestinians. With all of the hubbub about Abbas’s visit it is often overlooked that Gantz was actually Abbas’s houseguest first, back in August 2021. And unlike some members of the change government, Gantz has a relatively stable base of voters who won’t abandon him because he shared a coffee with the Palestinian president.
Of course, discussing security matters isn’t enough to reverse the tide. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have cooperated on security matters for years. The Gantz-Abbas meeting needs to generate other processes that will improve the daily conditions of Palestinians; otherwise, these confidence-building measures won’t amount to much. Some of the obvious ways to do this are the most politically controversial, as anti-normalization sentiments run high in the West Bank and actions that would be perceived as freezing settlement growth or altering Jerusalem’s status would face stiff resistance in Israeli politics, so for now the parties might have to be satisfied with small, calculated steps that gradually build trust between decision makers.
It is easy to be cynical. A single coffee on its own cannot alter the on-the-ground realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in a part of the world where welcoming a stranger into your home is the ultimate form of hospitality and kindness, this gesture shouldn’t be belittled. If the parties are serious then an inch of progress is worth the pain. As we’ve seen this year, it can make the difference between life and death.
Here are several pieces that I think are worth considering:
- As usual, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid offers some of the quickest and sharpest reporting—his summary of the Gantz-Abbas meeting provides further details about the range of issuescovered in their conversation, including matters pertaining to security and economic coordination.
- Understanding the role of public opinion in conflict resolution can be a lifelong pursuit, but to get a better understanding, I strongly recommend the joint work of Dahlia Scheindlin and Khalil Shikaki (whom I mentioned in this article and others): “Role of Public Opinion in the Resilience/Resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.”In my opinion, they convincingly demonstrate that the public is neither an obstacle to peace nor a driver for peace, and provide detailed data to support this position.
- Almost four years later, Grant Rumley’s “The Tragedy of Mahmoud Abbas”in The Atlantic remains one of the best pieces written on the Palestinian leader. Rumley also co-authored a biography of Abbas with Ha’aretz journalist Amir Tibon that I warmly endorse, along with this 2017 Lawfare interview with both of them about their work.
Gabriel Mitchell is a policy fellow at the Mitvim Institute and a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University. Read more at Invisible Boundaries, his newsletter about Israel and the Middle East.