Israel's Gantz meets Palestine's Abbas for direct talks
Israel's Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the first time in years to discuss strengthening economic and personal freedoms, officials said on Monday.
After a near-complete breakdown in relations between the two sides, the Sunday evening meeting in Ramallah came just days after US President Joe Biden asked Israel's new prime minister to try to improve the lives of Palestinians.
It was believed to be the highest-level direct talks between the two sides since 2014 when US-brokered talks on the Middle East peace process stalled.
Following the talks, Gantz unveiled plans for stepped-up contact with Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, including a $150 million (roughly €130 million) loan, telling domestic media such developments were in Israel's interests as well.
"The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,'' Gantz was quoted as telling Israeli military correspondents on Monday, referring to the rival group in control in Gaza that Israel deems a terrorist organization. "And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we'll have and the less we'll have to do.''
What did the two discuss?
Gantz and Abbastalked about making moves to build up the Palestinian economy in the occupied West Bank, according to the Israeli defense minister's office.
According to a Palestinian official, Abbas asked Gantz to stop all Israeli military operations in the occupied West Bank, to allow relatives from Palestinian areas to reunite with those inside Israel and to increase the amount of Palestinians permitted to work in Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to the AP news agency.
Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj were also at the meeting, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Abbas has said he is willing to restart the Middle East peace talks with Israel after Joe Biden became US President this year, despite an exchange of rocket and missile fire earlier this year.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, called the meeting a "continuation of an illusion" that it was possible to have good relations with Israel.
A spokesperson for Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU, said further dialogue with Israel would only increase divisions in the Palestinian community.
Why is the meeting significant?
The meeting could be a preliminary step towards thawing high-level relations between Israel and Palestine that have been icy cold since US-brokered talks seeking the elusive "two-state solution" collapsed in 2014.
Joe Biden's election also gave new hope to the chances for renewed dialogue after previous President Donald Trump took a pro-Israel perspective during his time in office.
Biden has said he favors a two-state solution for the region but his administration wants to focus on building confidence between the two sides before any serious talks begin.
New Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week returned from a visit to the US where he talked to Biden about the situation.
Bennett, who was able to oust Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this year, is a hardliner who does not believe in Palestinian independence.
But along with the coalition that brought him into office, he wants to strengthen the Palestinian economy and the Fatah party of which Abbas is a member.
The Fatah party, started in 1959 by former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, is the largest faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
jc/msh (Reuters, AP)