A meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a first between top officials in more than a decade, has stirred renewed hope that a revival of peace talks between the two sides is imminent.
In the meantime, though, their meeting yielded several key decisions among them, Israel agreed to resolve residency issues for some 5,000 families living in the West Bank.
Hundreds of people hoping to get their paperwork in order gathered outside the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry in Ramallah to submit their reunification applications.
Mohammad Gilo, an attorney who has been married to a Jordanian woman for five years, says that he won’t benefit from the news because his wife lives outside the Palestinian territories.
“My wife lives in Jordan, and we can’t be together. I’m one of many who suffer from this problem. I have a 7-month-old baby I haven’t seen in six months,” he said.
Hussein Al-Sheikh, minister of civil affairs for the Palestinian Authority and the PA point man overseeing relations with Israel, said the deal was the “first batch on the road to finalizing this file entirely.”
An estimated 22,000 Palestinians are asking for improved residency status under family unification, which would legalize the status of thousands of undocumented foreign nationals married to Palestinians and living in the West Bank.
Israel also agreed to loan $150 million to the Palestinians, authorize permits to work in Israel for an additional 15,000 Palestinian workers, and allow the Palestinian territories to get 4G cellular service.
Ammar Aker, CEO at Palestine Telecom (Paltel) Group, says that introducing 4G service will have a massive impact on the Palestinian economy.
“It will have a major impact. Any increase in the broadband in any economy, not only in Palestine, any economy in the world. When you have a better broadband penetration rate you always have a better economy,” Aker says
He hopes this step will improve the future of the Palestinian digital economy. “We were left behind for several years and now we are trying to catch up with the rest of the world,” Aker says.
Although the Palestinian Authority hails these latest understandings as a major breakthrough in its dealings with Israel, Razi al-Nabulsi, a researcher at Masarat – The Palestinian Center for Policy Research & Strategic Studies in Ramallah in the West Bank, says many Palestinians beg to differ.
He says the PA and its understandings with Israel have jeopardized the Palestinian cause.
Nabulsi argues that the fact that the PA views what it has reached with the Israelis as an achievement, is an indication of its “inability” to govern and is further proof that it has “lost the justification for its existence.”
“This cannot in any way be considered an achievement,” Nablusi said. “It is an achievement only for a leadership that failed in its national project, and waits for the crumbs from the Israeli government, the Americans and the world to give it a justification for its existence, its role and its rule for the Palestinian people.”
Former PA information minister, Nabil Amr, does not think the new agreements are great news for Palestinians.
“It is not an achievement – neither large nor medium nor small; a meeting with limited facilities, nothing more, nothing less,” Amr said.
The stepped-up in communication with Israeli officials intensified after Prime Minister Naftali Bennet met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington late last month.
The meetings also come after a new government was formed without former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Relations between the two sides collapsed in recent years under Netanyahu. The last time senior Palestinian and Israeli officials met for face-to-face talks was in April 2004, during former U.S. President Barak Obama’s second term.
Biden supports a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, but his administration is focused on interim confidence-building measures using economic incentives for the Palestinians.
Amr says the latest Israeli-Palestinian meetings came at the direction of the U.S. administration.
“They want to save the PA from collapse, and they also want to end the internal tension in Palestinian society and in the Palestinian arena, without being accompanied by tangible steps to restore the peace talks or negotiations,” said Amr.
Dr. Nasr Abdel Kareem, professor of finance and economics in the graduate studies department at the Arab American University in Ramallah, says there are Israeli, American and regional interests in keeping the PA in place and able to perform its functions.
“The nature of these functions is more security and service to the Palestinians, and this is acceptable to Israel,” he says.
Abdel Kareem says the American proposal is nothing more than a revival of an initiative previously rejected by the Palestinians, the so-called deal of the century introduced by former U.S. President Donald Trump.
“This is politically disturbing, and it may benefit the authority economically. This is more consistent with Kushner and Netanyahu’s proposal, which was called economic peace. In essence, it is not much different,” says Abdel Kareem.
The new measures are aimed at stimulating and strengthening the Palestinian economy.
Many observers claim that the new Israeli government’s objective is to bolster Abbas in his rivalry against Gaza’s ruling Hamas group.
In a meeting last week with the foreign press, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said his government has a “working” relationship with the PA, adding “we are not interested in weakening them.”
“Our declared goal is to do whatever is possible to improve the lives of Palestinians, in terms of the economy and security; also, self-governance; also, public health and fighting the pandemic,” Lapid said.
Israeli government policy is to weaken Hamas in the wake of the 11-day cross-border conflict in May and to prop up Abbas’ rule in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a hard-liner who opposes Palestinian independence and is a supporter of the settlements, as are key partners in his diverse ruling coalition. Lapid, who admits he is a proponent of the two-state solution, recognizes that the current government has limits and constraints in reaching any political settlement in the near future.
Abdel Kareem admits that the addition of 15,000 Palestinian work permits will help the Palestinian economy.
“After the increase in the number of work permits, we are talking about 200,000 Palestinian workers pumping into the economy a huge amount of cash – 10 billion shekels (3 billion dollars) annually. In an economy like that of the Palestinians, whose size does not exceed $10 billion to $12 billion annually, this is considered huge,” he says.
But even with that economic lifeline to the Palestinian Authority, the U.S.-educated Abdel Kareem disputes the notion that if there’s economic well-being then people will abandon their political and national ambitions.
“Israel aspires and desires to see Palestinian citizens live in luxury, but only on the condition that they guarantee Israel’s security. This is the new equation. Security versus economy,” he says.
Abdel Kareem says the equation between the Israelis and Palestinians has changed due to the latter’s weakness.
“In the past, it was land for peace,” he says. “This is impossible. A wrong perception. Peres and Netanyahu adopted it. By the way, during the first and second intifadas, the economic conditions of the people were the best.”
For now, the Palestinian Authority is breathing a sigh of relief, and it is betting that economic stability will secure its political future and allow it to stay around for a while.
Article written by Mohammad al-Kassim. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line