Israel-Abbas ties warming but peace talks unlikely

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas (center) meeting with World Bank president David Malpass (left) n Ramallah in the West Bank, on Oct 5, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Recent visits by three Israeli Cabinet ministers to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas indicate both sides are keen to promote stability and improve ties, even if peace talks remain off the table for now.

The Israeli coalition led by hardline nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett - which ranges from left-wingers to Islamists - has no common position on ending the decades-long Palestinian conflict, complicating any formal diplomatic negotiations.

But Mr Bennett has said his government will aim to improve economic conditions in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory under Israeli military occupation since 1967.

For Mr Abbas, who was largely ignored by Mr Bennett's predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, moves by Israel to bolster his position would likely be welcome, analysts said.

A poll last month by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research found that a record 80 per cent of Palestinians want Mr Abbas to resign, reflecting deep frustration with the 86-year-old leader.

Only 19 per cent of respondents believe Mr Abbas's secular Fatah movement deserves to lead the Palestinian people, with 45 per cent preferring Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

For Mr Abbas and his Palestinian Authority - facing mounting anger over endemic corruption and a crackdown on human rights activists - talking to Israel is partly about "taking advantage of the diplomatic context", said Mr Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Middle East Research Centre at Tel Aviv University.

That context, Mr Rabi said, is shaped by an Israeli coalition that includes leaders committed to a two-state solution and, for the first time ever, an Arab-Israeli party.

US President Joe Biden's administration is also seen as far more sympathetic to the Palestinians than Donald Trump, who was accused of egregious bias towards Israel.

The first high-level Israeli visit to Mr Abbas in Ramallah, which came days after Mr Bennett met Mr Biden in Washington, was by Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

Mr Bennett is the former head of a lobby group representing Jewish settlers, who live in West Bank communities considered illegal under international law, and he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

After Mr Gantz met Mr Abbas, a source close to the premier clarified that the discussions were on security issues and that "there is no peace process with the Palestinians nor will there be" under Mr Bennett's leadership.

But on Sunday (Oct 3), Mr Abbas received Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Freij and lawmaker Michal Rozin, all from the left-wing Meretz party, part of the ruling coalition.

"We have a common mission," Mr Horowitz wrote on Twitter. "To maintain the hope of a peace founded on the two-state solution."

The tweet included a photo of him standing with Mr Abbas.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (left) with Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. PHOTO: NITZAN HOROWITZ/TWITTER

As Mr Abbas has stepped up his diplomacy with Israel, he has also maintained a hard rhetorical line.

In an address to the UN General Assembly last month, he said that if Israel did not withdraw from all occupied territory within a year, he would no longer recognise the Jewish state based on pre-1967 borders.

Mr Rabi of Tel Aviv University said Mr Abbas' goal with that unrealistic ultimatum was to suggest that if there was no progress on peace talks during his tenure as president, a "chaotic" situation could result.

Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu stressed the limitations of Mr Abbas's dealings with Israel, saying the Jewish state was open to discussing humanitarian issues, but it "does not want to hear about rights or political freedoms".

Mr Khalil Shaheen, a veteran Palestinian analyst and journalist, said Mr Abbas is betting that he can create "momentum" that pressures Mr Bennett into reviving moribund peace talks.

But that strategy could prove "ineffective" because Mr Bennett's ideologically disparate coalition is more focused on its own survival than on peace talks with the Palestinians, Mr Shaheen told AFP.

This "Israeli government has agreed to avoid controversial subjects like the Palestinian question that could tear it up at any moment," he said.

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