The Biden administration has been floating the idea of a White House meeting between senior Israeli and Palestinian officials, according to five current and former U.S and Israeli officials.
Behind the scenes: U.S. officials have raised that possibility with Israeli officials several times over the last four months, and also discussed it with the Palestinians, Egyptians and Jordanians. While the Israeli side didn’t reject it outright they presented several reservations.
- The low-profile discussions about a potential meeting were the most active involvement of the White House in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the fighting in Gaza last May.
- But the chances of such a meeting fell significantly on Wednesday after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government lost its parliamentary majority.
- With more right-wing lawmakers potentially considering defecting, Bennett — himself a conservative who opposes the two-state solution — will have little room to maneuver on the Palestinian issue.
Details: The White House suggested holding the meeting at the level of national security advisers rather than heads of state, and focusing in on security and economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with the backing of the U.S., Egypt and Jordan, three current and former U.S. officials and two Israeli officials told Axios.
- According to one Israeli official and one former U.S. official, the U.S. first raised the issue with Israel last December.
- The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office presented to the White House several reservations, including Bennett’s position that he will not hold anything resembling political negotiations with the Palestinians, the two Israeli officials said.
- When the White House raised the issue again in February, Bennett elected not to give a clear answer but to wait to see whether the idea gained momentum.
The big picture: Israel’s broad unity government — which includes left-wing and right-wing members — has decided not to engage in any peace initiatives with the Palestinians because of internal divisions on that issue.
- At the same time, Bennett’s government has abandoned the Benjamin Netanyahu-era policy of rejecting all dialogue.
- Defense Minister Benny Gantz has met multiple times with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israelis have attempted to strengthen the Palestinian Authority.
- The government has also taken unprecedented steps to improve the economy in the West Bank and Gaza, such as giving 20,000 permits for Gazans to work in Israel.
Between the lines: The potential meeting would be a way for the White House to show international and regional backing for such confidence-building measures.
- It could provide Abbas with a diplomatic achievement and much-needed signal that there is a political horizon for the Palestinian people, while at the same time — because it would be held between security officials and include Egypt and Jordan — allow Bennett to say it is not the start of political negotiations.
- Israeli politics currently appear to be the biggest barrier to making it happen, and U.S. and Israeli officials say talks about a potential meeting have died down in recent weeks.
What they’re saying: “We have ongoing discussions with all of our Middle East partners on increasing regional integration to tackle shared challenges. These discussions have been wholly constructive,” a senior Biden administration official said.
- The Israeli Prime Minister’s office said: “We don’t comment on our dialogue with the U.S. government.”