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Why Abbas's Israel visit shows the Palestinian Authority is in trouble

Cash handouts will keep the PA afloat but do nothing for its popularity, though Gantz can use it as another excuse for a larger military budget
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Minister of Defence Benny Gantz this week in a rare formal visit to Israel (MEE)

Tuesday evening's meeting in the town of Rosh HaAyin was hailed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz as a summit to secure gains and concessions for both of their people.

In fact, the meeting at Gantz's home chiefly served personal purposes, both for themselves and their allies.

Mahmoud Abbas visits Israeli defence minister's home for talks
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Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA) is cash-strapped and struggling to assert itself as Israeli settler violence grows. For Palestinian observers, it appeared the 86-year-old was seeking help from the Israelis to stay afloat.

"It is clear that this meeting's goal was to discuss the survival of the PA in the face of the challenges it faces," Hani al-Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, told Middle East Eye.

Though Gantz was offering the PA money on Tuesday, he was implicitly also seeking cash himself. The former army chief is determined to swell the military's budget - and signalling that the PA needs financial support to survive is one way to convince his sceptical coalition allies to open the purse strings.

The meeting was part of a campaign "to promote the interests of the Israeli military brass through privatising the responsibilities of the army," Shir Hever, an Israeli analyst, told MEE.

Money and security

Abbas had not publicly met with an Israeli official in Israel since 2010 - though he travelled across the Green Line for Shimon Peres's funeral in 2016 in a personal capacity.

The trip to Gantz's house came at a crucial time. Settler attacks and Israeli army raids on Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank have skyrocketed in recent weeks.

Following the meeting, Israel agreed to offer the PA 100m shekels ($32m) as an advance on the taxes Israel collects on its behalf. It also agreed to grant residency documentations for some 6,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and another 3,500 people from Gaza Strip, in a gesture to "build confidence" between both sides.

'Which president goes to a meeting at night in this manner, as if he's hiding and acting like a thief?'

Hani al-Masri, political analyst

Marsi said this agreement "highlights that the PA is beginning to prepare to accept an economic peace plan. A security arrangement in exchange for the economy. This is a dangerous development."

"Which president goes to a meeting at night in this manner, as if he's hiding and acting like a thief? One goes at night to a friend, lover or relative maybe," Masri argued.

It is notable that the meeting was also attended by Ghassan Alian, the Israeli military liaison to the Palestinians, and his counterpart Hussein al-Sheikh.

Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, the defence ministry has been directly in charge of the territory. However, since the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat), currently headed by Alian, has been the authority that approves permits and projects of roads, electricity, and water and ensures security.

All of that happens through liaising with the PA's General Authority of Civil Affairs, headed by Shiekh.

'No political authority'

However, neither body had the authority to take political decisions regarding expanding or halting settlements in the West Bank, which has long hindered the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Thus, the meeting between Gantz and Abbas has "no political authority", according to Masri.

"This is in addition to the fact that the PA does not need meetings in order to obtain Israeli support - because Israel does not want the collapse of the PA in the first place," he said, adding that authority seems to "focus solely on its own survival and accept the framework of economic peace".

Masri said that "the majority of Palestinians are against this meeting", which was also condemned by some of the Fatah-led PA's rival political factions, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

"The PA is experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis. There is also an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy and democracy highlighted in the cancellation of the elections earlier this year. In addition to the failure of its diplomatic approach and the absence of any prospect for peace talks to resume. The lack of progress in talks is unprecedented," Masri said.

Israeli army's interests

Yet for Gantz and the Israeli military commanders, maintaining security for settlers and settlements in the West Bank remains a top priority, and it needs PA collaboration to do so.

In December, towns in the environs of Nablus and Jenin, cities in the north of the West Bank, became a hotspot for confrontations between settlers, Israeli forces and Palestinians.

The meeting was also a chance for Gantz to push for "more autonomy to pursue interests" for the Israeli army, with suspicions that Naftali Bennett's unwieldy coalition could struggle to govern and even collapse.

'For Gantz, the settlers are just another subcontractor and their violence gives him the benefit of plausible deniability'

- Shir Hever, analyst

"Gantz has been doing successfully in emergency budget meetings, and just last week won 7 billion shekels in extra defence spending without scrutiny. In addition, Gantz recently secured an increase in the monthly payment to regular Israeli soldiers," Hever told MEE. 

Another reason for meeting Abbas was to "strengthen the PA's ability to crack down on Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation", Hever said.

"[Gantz] offered Abbas a loan to finance the salaries of PA employees and privileges for senior Palestinian officials," he said. In turn, Abbas asked Gantz to rein in violent ultra-nationalist settlers.

However, "for Gantz, the settlers are just another subcontractor and their violence gives him the benefit of plausible deniability, rather than sending Israeli soldiers to expand land grabs in the West Bank directly", Hever said.

'No longer the same'

The PA's struggles come at a time when its rivals in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are rising in popularity. However, both movements are designated as terrorist entities by the US, hated by Israel and are currently in no position to engage with western powers.

"The PA cares more about its external sources of support than it cares about its internal sources of support. Because if they participate in elections, they will lose. It's as simple as that. Their main source of insurance comes from Israel first and foremost, then the US, Arab states and Europe," Masri said.

There's a bumpy road for the PA ahead: if Palestinian officials want access to the money they require to keep the authority afloat, they need to maintain security coordination with Israel - but that risks haemorrhaging popularity among Palestinians. 

As settler violence grows under the watch of Israeli and PA security forces, pressure on the authority to act grows. If it does, the PA risks losing Israel's financial support, leaving almost 180,000 public sector employees without salaries.

"The PA is no longer the same. In the past, it had substantial legitimacy within Palestine. It had a clear political process and relied on the strong history of Fatah's struggle against Israel and previous elections they had won. Now, the situation is the opposite," Masri said.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.