Restoring Palestinian-Israeli trust

The first high-level meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority since 2010 hints at a desire to shape peace, not merely manage conflict.

A Palestinian on the West Bank argues with Israeli soldiers during an Aug. 25 protest against a new road for Israeli settlers north of Nablus.

On Sunday evening, with no press cameras allowed, a top Israeli official met with the head of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah. That might seem like normal diplomacy but in this case it was not. The two sides have had no high-level face-to-face talks in over a decade, a result of deep misgivings and suspicions. No wonder Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz summed up his dark-of-night visit with PA President Mahmoud Abbas this way: “I came to the meeting to build trust.”

If trust is rooted in shared values and expectations of honest dealings, their secretive get-together was a modest success, at least in the humanitarian gestures by Israel. Some 16,000 additional Palestinians will be allowed to work in Israel, bolstering a hard-hit economy on the West Bank. The PA will receive a loan of more than $150 million. Some 5,000 Palestinians will be able to reunite with family in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem. And Israel will issue more permits for Palestinian housing in the West Bank.

These proactive steps reflect a bottom-up approach toward Israel influencing the conflict with Palestinians. If the broad-based coalition under Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett can restore trust with the PA, it might be able to shape a reality for peace rather than simply manage the frequent violence in both the West Bank and in Gaza, which is controlled by the radical Islamist group Hamas.

“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Israel’s defense minister explained. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”

The issues between the two sides are so huge that trust-building is the first requirement. For Israel, which now faces a more serious threat from Iran, the time is ripe to lift up the expectations of West Bank Palestinians for a better life. Within Mr. Bennett’s eight-party coalition, a few politicians such as Mr. Gantz see it that way. And in the prime minister’s meeting last week with President Joe Biden, the United States reaffirmed that “a negotiated two-state solution is the only viable path.”

That solution would be easier if Israel and the PA could act as if each side were a state, holding more face-to-face talks at the highest level, exploring what values and interests they share. Trust starts with listening.

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