Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Defense Minister Benny Gantz met in Ramallah on Sunday evening for the first high-level, face-to-face talks in more than a decade, Israeli and Palestinian officials announced.
Senior Palestinian Authority official Hussein al-Sheikh, who is close to Abbas and is responsible for coordinating with Israel in Ramallah, wrote in a tweet on Twitter: “Mr. President Mahmoud Abbas met this evening in Ramallah with Mr. Benny Gantz, where the Palestinian-Israeli relations were discussed from all its aspects.”
A statement from Gantz's office said the two discussed issues related to security, diplomacy, the economy, and civil affairs in wide-ranging talks.
"Gantz told (Abbas) that Israel is ready for a series of measures that will strengthen the economy of the Palestinian Authority," the statement read.
"The two also discussed the formation of the security, civil and economic reality in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza," he added, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
The talks come with the return of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from Washington after meeting with US President Joe Biden. Biden raised the Palestinian issue with the new Israeli leader during their talks.
Bennett pledged to support the ailing Palestinian Authority government and economy, although he ruled out working to establish an independent Palestinian state.
The last high-level face-to-face talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders were in 2010, at the start of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's second term in office. While the two leaders sometimes crossed paths later, relations became increasingly strained as the peace process faltered indefinitely. Their last public phone call was in 2017, after a Palestinian attack.
In recent years, high-level contacts between the two sides have become rare.
According to Gantz's office, the two politicians held two rounds of discussions. The first was attended by Ghassan Alyan, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and Palestinian Authority Intelligence Chief Majed Faraj and Al-Sheikh. In the second, Gantz and Abbas spoke separately.
During Biden’s meeting with Bennett, the US President stressed “the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians and support greater economic opportunities for them,” and noted “the importance of refraining from actions that could exacerbate tensions, contribute to a sense of injustice, and undermine confidence-building efforts.” According to a statement issued by the White House.
Gantz spoke by phone with Abbas in mid-July, in what marked the highest level of public contact between the two sides since Netanyahu's 2017 phone call. A series of meetings and phone calls ensued: Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev spoke with Abbas a few weeks later, while ministers held From the two sides rare meetings with their counterparts.
Israeli officials have publicly emphasized strengthening the Palestinian Authority's economy—Ramallah is facing a growing financial crisis. In July, Israel increased the number of work permits for West Bank Palestinians seeking work inside Israel in a bid to ease the economic crisis.
Economy and Coronavirus
The West Bank economy has been hit by the coronavirus, shrinking by 11.5% over the course of 2020. The PA government budget has also been dealt a serious blow, with a Western diplomat speaking with The Times of Israel in late July warning that the PA is “on the verge of collapse due to a shortage of Revenues".
At the same time, Ramallah has seen a significant decrease in Arab and international aid, which previously represented a large part of its budget. In 2019, the PA received about $300 million in budget support by the end of June. But in 2021, the Palestinians received only $30.2 million — barely more than a tenth of the amount.
The majority of the budget comes from tax revenue that Israel collects on its behalf, known as clearance revenue.
Under an Israeli law passed in 2018, Israel regularly confiscates funds from revenue to punish Ramallah for its policy of paying salaries to Palestinian security prisoners, those killed during violent confrontations with Israeli forces, and their families — including those who have committed attacks against Israelis.
In July, the Israeli government approved the confiscation of 600 million shekels ($186 million) over a six-month period. This figure is reported to be roughly the same as what Ramallah paid in salaries to security prisoners and the families of the attackers in 2020.
On Friday, The Times of Israel reported that Israel and the Palestinian Authority were in talks about a financial aid plan that would send hundreds of millions of shekels to Ramallah. However, a final agreement has not yet been announced.