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Israel's elections and the Palestinian cause
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 04 - 2019

Recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu revealed disturbing features of the “Deal of the Century” that US President Donald Trump is expected to unveil soon now that Israeli Knesset elections have ended. The deal paves the way for the Judaicisation of the whole of Occupied Jerusalem which Israel refuses to divide, annexation to Israel of large chunks of the West Bank, if not the annexation of the West Bank entirely, and the ongoing refusal to dismantle or evacuate any of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. In short, the deal will deliver a bullet of mercy to the two-state solution which had been the cornerstone of the peace process and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
Netanyahu sounded especially triumphant when speaking of the rift between Fatah and Hamas which has lasted for 12 years. He said that Israel would work to perpetuate that rift until achieving a complete separation between two major parts of Palestinian land. He suggested that reoccupying Gaza would be too costly for Israel and that there was no need to pay the price since he had other ways to weaken the Palestinians.
The Israeli prime minister's statements, issued against the backdrop of the fierce rivalry between right-wing leaders in the run-up to the elections, are ominous harbingers of what the Trump administration has in store for the Palestinian people. Trump has been most munificent in the gifts it has bestowed on the right-wing Israeli government. Only months after ordering the move of the US Embassy to Occupied Jerusalem, Trump recognised the Israeli annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. Before this, he cut off US aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in tandem with the Israeli decision to withhold tax and customs revenue transfers to the PA, ostensibly because of the welfare payments the PA makes to support the families of Palestinian prisoners and martyrs. The freeze on funds triggered a financial crisis in Ramallah, compelling the PA to pay only half of the salaries due to civil servants in the West Bank and Gaza.
The extremist attitudes of Israeli leaders only escalate in the face of Palestinian inability to act effectively due to the ongoing rift that has enabled Israel to monopolise the ceasefire process with Hamas and eliminate the PA entirely as an effective player in Gaza. Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas presses ahead with the formation of a new government, a task he assigned to Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh. The consultations have precipitated yet another rift, this time between the factions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) themselves. Fatah along with some minor factions in the PLO have agreed to form a government, while the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) have refused to take part. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are already excluded since they are not members of the PLO.
Although both the PA and Hamas have officially declared their rejection of the “Deal of the Century,” nothing appears to stand in the way of its implementation, which will be the first fruit that Netanyahu's Likud will reap after re-election. The lack of a united Palestinian stance has severely weakened the Palestinian hand, apart from the ability to draw on some Arab reactions that the PA can use to pressure Israel, especially with regard to litigation through the International Criminal Court in connection with illegal settlement activities and Israeli aggressions against Gaza.
The PA is also armed with an absolute Arab rejection of the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Major Arab powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have made it clear that their positions on this matter are unshakable. They still insist that East Jerusalem must be the capital of the envisioned Palestinian state regardless of the breakthroughs that Israel has scored in normalising relations with some Arab states, such as Oman, in advance of the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative. The initiative provides for a series of steps that need to be taken before the normalisation of relations between the Arabs and Israel.
On the other hand, the Israeli government has again displayed its deftness at separating the Palestinian fronts, which is its strategy for dealing with the Middle East in general. At a time of Palestinian/Arab weakness, Israel has managed to strip its blockade against Gaza of its political dimension, leaving only the humanitarian one. In this framework, it reached what appears to a long-term ceasefire with Hamas that includes a partial solution to some of Gaza's pressing material problems. For example, Israel agreed to increase the storage capacity of the fuel tanks at the Gaza electricity station and to up the wattage in one of the electricity mains from Israel to Gaza. It also expanded the permitted fishing zone in Gaza to 15 miles, the largest space available to Gaza fishermen since 2002, and it agreed to pay the salaries for Hamas's civil servants and to temporarily fund the Strip's job creation programmes. PA officials read the agreement as another step towards severing Gaza from the West Bank and the creation of a Gazan statelet as an alternative to the envisioned Palestinian state. Hamas continues to deny playing into such a scheme.
If the ceasefire has been cast as a long-term accommodation, observers believe that it is merely a device that Netanyahu used in order to get through the elections before delivering a decisive blow to Hamas. Tel Aviv came under missile attack twice from Gaza last month. Hamas implied that it was behind the attack even though it did not officially claim responsibility. This, in turn, signifies that the Palestinian factions have overcome the fear barrier when it comes to firing missiles towards Tel Aviv, which upsets the deterrent balances that Israel wants to maintain against Palestinian forces.
Inside Israel, the Palestinian question was not just in the background in the campaigns. It became a ping pong ball in the games of oneupmanship between rival Israeli parties encouraged by the predictions of Israeli opinion polls that half of the Arabs in Israel would not vote in the elections because of divisions that rent the United Arab List, which represented all Arab political forces in Israel.
But, regardless of the differences between them, Israeli political parties are unanimous on the need to militarily deter Hamas. Certainly, the inclusion of many generals as leaders of the political parties and alliances that have vied against each other in these heated campaigns promises to raise the temperatures on Israeli's southern front which Israel sees as the weakest link in its triangle of enemies made up of Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran. The possibilities of an imminent military conflagration on that front have been further increased by Hamas's raising of the threat bar when Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar warned that Israel would have to evacuate the whole of Tel Aviv in any future confrontation against the Palestinian factions.
The Israeli right retained the upper hand in these elections in which politicians played on themes from a looming military confrontation against Gaza to the purported possibility of Egyptian acquiescence to the annexation of portions of Sinai to Gaza, an assertion that the Hebrew media continues to reiterate as a means to drive a wedge between Cairo and the PA. In all events, tensions are rising between Israel and all Palestinian parties in light of the green light the Trump administration has given to Israel to press ahead with unilateral measures inimical to peace and which, in turn, paves the way to fraught and potentially volatile situations in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.


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