Israel’s defense minister on Monday announced a series of gestures aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority, including plans to loan $150 million to the cash-strapped autonomy government in the occupied West Bank. The announcement came a day after Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years.  The stepped-up contacts and Israeli gestures mark a shift in direction after the complete breakdown of communication between Abbas and Israeli leaders in recent years. Israel’s new government has said it is interested in bolstering Abbas in his rivalry against Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group. FILE – Palestinian laborers work on a construction site in the Jewish settlement of Beitar Illit, near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, September 10, 2014.Hussein Al Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who oversees relations with Israel, said an initial deal had been reached to resolve the status of about 5,000 families. He said it was “a first batch in the road to finalizing this file entirely.” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a hard-liner who opposes Palestinian independence, as do key partners in his diverse, ruling coalition. But Bennett has said he supports building up the Palestinian economy and expanding autonomy for Palestinians.  He also is interested in weakening Hamas in the wake of an 11-day war last May. Egyptian-led attempts at brokering a long-term cease-fire have foundered in recent weeks, and Hamas has staged a series of violent demonstrations along the Israeli border in hopes of pressuring Israel into easing an economic blockade of the territory. While Biden supports a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, his administration is focused on interim confidence-building measures.  Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, pursued a hardline policy toward the Palestinians, backed by former President Donald Trump.  The Trump administration took a number of steps that favored Israel, including moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to contested Jerusalem. Abbas halted most contacts with the U.S. and Israel in return.  Netanyahu had repeatedly claimed Abbas was not a reliable partner for negotiating a peace deal, a portrayal dismissed by Netanyahu critics as a pretext for avoiding making concessions. 
 

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