The meeting on Aug. 29 between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas provoked heated reactions across the entire Palestinian political spectrum, as seen on the front pages of the daily newspapers of eastern Jerusalem.

Among the allegations made against Abbas was that instead of favoring reconciliation with Hamas, he preferred ties with Israel. Others blamed him for lowering the bar of Palestinian nationalist expectations in exchange for economic benefits and Netanyahu’s economic peace formula.

Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the P.A.’s Authority of Civil Affairs and liaison with Israel, defended the meeting, noting the crowning achievement of Israel’s agreement to renew the unification of Palestinian families. He said that in the first stage, 5,000 families would be reunited.

Hussein al-Sheikh had to raise this kernel of an accomplishment in the face of criticism of the meeting from Palestinian political circles, and in light of Fatah’s silence.

It should be noted that only al-Sheikh and Majed Faraj, the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, attended the meeting, while P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh was missing. His absence indicates the deepening rifts in Fatah amid the battle of succession being waged regarding Abbas’s replacement.

Al-Sheikh and Faraj represent the camp that advocates good relations and cooperation with Israel, as opposed to Shtayyeh and senior Fatah officials like Mahmoud al-Aloul, who oppose connections with Israel. The ideological line in the battle of Palestinian succession lies here.

The flagship of the Palestinian diplomatic struggle against Israel is the prosecution in The Hague of senior Israeli officials for alleged war crimes, and in this regard, there is bad news for the P.A.

According to my sources in Ramallah, the International Criminal Court has not dismissed the case against Israel, but is downgrading it on the agenda because there are more urgent matters to deal with. Moreover, Gantz is on the list of “war criminals,” and it would be difficult to convince the tribunal of the validity of such a charge after such bilateral meetings in Ramallah.

The litmus test for Abbas is whether he is able to dismiss Shtayyeh and lead a new policy direction. At one point a new Palestinian government headed by Ziyad Abu Amr, who was acceptable to Israel, was discussed, but the Fatah “elders” blocked him and demanded that the stubborn Shtayyeh be retained.

In conclusion: Faraj, who represents security cooperation with Israel, and Hussein al-Sheikh, who represents civil cooperation, attended the meeting, while Shtayyeh, who represents the struggle against Israel, did not. This issue will test Abbas’s ability to make a difference—even a small one.

It will also give us a clue as to where the West Bank leadership is headed in the future—in favor of cooperation with Israel, or in favor of fighting it.

Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.


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