JERUSALEM – One night last month, a senior Israeli minister traveled the winding roads of the occupied West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.
The meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Mr. Abbas at the Palestinian leader’s private residence in the 1980s – less than a 10-minute drive from the IDF’s regional headquarters – lasted about 90 minutes, but immediately made waves in Israel and the West Bank.
This was the first time in more than seven years that a high-ranking Israeli minister is known to have met Mr. Abbas. The previous Israeli government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had denigrated Mr. Abbas as a stubborn instigator of violence and had never met him.
The August meeting is the most prominent evidence of a new, more cooperative approach to dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which senior members of the new Israeli government see as a bulwark against the Islamist militant group Hamas.
Since the government took office in June, other ministers have met their Palestinian counterparts and Israeli officials have said they are taking a range of concrete steps to benefit the Palestinians economically, to increase security cooperation and to change some policies that have been denounced as discriminatory.
“The Palestinian Authority is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and we are working to strengthen the Palestinian Authority,” Mr. Gantz told diplomats in a recent briefing.
But the emerging accord has clear limits, given that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has ruled out the possibility of peace talks and the establishment of a Palestinian state. These restrictions have led some critics to describe his government as a kind of watered-down Netanyahu and attack the Palestinian Authority for keeping pace with the new measures.
However, the policy marks a significant turnaround from Netanyahu’s later years, when the government repeatedly undermined the Palestinian Authority and threatened to annex large parts of the West Bank, leading the authority to cut security cooperation with Israel. The Biden administration is pressing the two governments to improve relations as a step toward peace, even if there are no peace talks imminent.
In addition to the Gantz-Abbas meeting, two cabinet ministers and President Isaac Herzog spoke to Mr. Abbas by phone and at least five ministers met with senior Palestinian officials.
The government is also taking a range of practical steps that are likely to improve the lives of many Palestinians.
Israeli and Palestinian officials said the government has agreed to grant residency to thousands of family members of undocumented Palestinians in the West Bank who have lived in limbo without any formal legal status, often for years.
Last month, Israel moved to approve the construction of about 1,000 new Palestinian housing units in an Israeli-controlled section of the occupied West Bank, an area the government rarely allows Palestinians to build.
Israel’s Minister of Regional Cooperation, Issawi Frej, said that the government loaned the authority $156 million to help it in a financial crisis. It increased by 15,000 the quota of Palestinian workers allowed to work in Israel, where the minimum wage is three times what it is in Palestinian communities.
The Israeli military has offered Palestinian security forces more freedom of movement in areas under Israeli security control, according to an Israeli security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Palestinian officers have complained that the need for an Israeli permit to enter certain areas has hampered active criminal investigations.
The official said that the army is reducing the Israeli raids on the areas under the control of the Palestinian security.
Officials said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have begun high-level discussions about introducing 4G mobile technology into the occupied territories. Palestinian telecom companies from Israel need to release frequencies that they can use for the service. The West Bank currently has a 3G network, while Gaza is still rocking 2G.
Mr. Freij said Israel is also reviewing potential economic development projects in the West Bank.
Palestinians are largely happy with the new policies, with 56 percent considering them positive, according to a poll published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research on Tuesday.
Haitham al-Natsheh, 34, a resident of Hebron who has had no legal status since 1991, said he was overjoyed to hear that Israel would provide accommodation for his likes.
“It was a nice feeling,” he said. We’ve been through a lot of problems. Frankly, if there are any measures aimed at making our lives easier, we support them.”
Nimrod Novik, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, said the new policies represented “a dramatic departure from Netanyahu’s strategy, who will weaken the authority to the point of collapse before it is allowed to breathe.”
Although the new approach may be beneficial to the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s outspoken rejection of Palestinian statehood has opened it to criticism that it offers only a softer version of Netanyahu’s view of the Palestinian conflict as a problem to be managed rather than solved.
Bennett has said he opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, and announced last week that he would not meet with Mr. Abbas.
But even if he changes his mind, any move to start negotiations toward statehood is likely to bring down the government, a fragile coalition of diverse parties with mutual positions on the issue.
That closed door led to accusations that Mr. Abbas was abandoning Palestinian nationalism to accept what critics call “economic peace.”
Islamist groups attacked him for his meeting with Mr. Gantz, while secular critics accused him of collaborating with the Israeli occupation.
“It is amazing,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the United Nations and nephew of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. They are ready to engage in this process devoid of any recognition of Palestinian national rights.
Even as the Israeli government takes steps to improve the Palestinian economy and security, it has pledged to continue expanding settlements in the West Bank. It also continued to demolish Palestinian homes built without permits in areas where permits are rarely issued, and to use the heavy hand against Palestinians in protests and clashes.
A spokesman for Mr. Abbas did not respond to a request for comment, but Sabri Saidam, deputy secretary-general of Fatah’s Central Committee, said Mr. Abbas rejects criticism that he is selling out the Palestinian dream of statehood for the sake of the state. economic stability.
People who spoke to Mr. Abbas recently said he understands the current Israeli government’s political limits and accepts these cooperative measures as a good starting point for engagement.
It also follows the direction of the Biden administration, which is touting the measures as part of what it describes as a long-term process to advance efforts to end the conflict and achieve a two-state solution.
In a pre-recorded address to the United Nations on Friday, Mr. Abbas appeared to be referring to those steps, saying, “We will strive to succeed in this endeavor to create the conditions to move quickly towards a final political settlement that ends the Israeli occupation.” . “
But he also set a deadline for that settlement. He called for an international peace conference to resolve the conflict, gave Israel a one-year deadline to withdraw from the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, or would request a ruling from the International Court of Justice on the legality of the occupation.
US officials acknowledge current limits on “what might be workable and what might be on the table,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week, and focus on trying to improve conditions for Palestinians and relations between Israelis and Palestinians. governments.
President Biden, speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, reiterated his support for a two-state solution, adding, “We are very far from that goal at this moment, but we must never allow ourselves to give up the possibility of progress.”
Some analysts have argued that an approach that begins with a focus on the economy could pave the way for the authority to gain more autonomy.
Joel Braunold, managing director of S. Daniel Abraham, said small economic initiatives could help build the confidence needed to open the door to more significant changes such as Israeli authorities allowing Palestinian tax officials to be at ports or giving Palestinians greater freedom of movement. Center for Middle East Peace in Washington.
“This process can allow the Palestinian Authority to achieve real gains,” he said. “It can lead to changes that make a real difference to the lives of ordinary Palestinians.”