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After the Israeli elections, the Palestinians must vote


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Israelis voted Tuesday for their fifth election in four years. Like its predecessors, this election was shaped by a tense struggle between two motley camps – one opposing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the other backing his bid to return to power. At the time of writing, exit polls showed that Netanyahu’s Likud party and his allies seemed likely to garner 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, or Israeli parliament. That would be enough to oust a bloc led by centrist incumbent Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The vote count is not over, however, and Netanyahu’s predicted margin of victory could yet be wiped out.

The most eye-catching projected result is the performance of far-right brand Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party, which, as part of a bloc of other right-wing parties, secured what could be the third largest slice of seats in the Knesset. Regardless of the steady rightward shift in Israeli politics over the past two decades, Ben-Gvir’s extremism was until not so long ago considered irrelevant. As my colleagues have detailed, it has its roots in the openly racist Kach party, which was founded by radical American rabbi Meir Kahane and banned by Israel for its racist and violent incitement. Ben-Gvir was once dubbed “Israel’s David Duke” and worshiped Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli-American terrorist who killed 29 Palestinian worshipers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.

Elections in Israel: a far-right politician moves closer to power

But, in a hypothetical future Netanyahu government, a politician who openly embraces ethnic cleansing could be poised to become a power broker, even commanding key ministries and dictating national policy. Such a rise has been made possible by the former prime minister’s controversial search for allies as he seeks to regain power and escape an ongoing corruption trial. “Netanyahu opened the door for Ben-Gvir to participate in mainstream politics,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told my colleagues. “Now he becomes a force.”

At the same time, analysts have pointed to rather low turnout among the roughly 2 million Palestinian Israelis who live within Israel’s 1967 borders and can vote. Their disenchantment runs deep, linked both to historic grievances over their marginalization within Israel, but also to new frustrations over the ineffectiveness of the Lapid-led government, which included a right-wing Arab party in its fragile coalition.

Then there is the deterioration of the security situation nearby in the northern areas of the West Bank, where the Israeli army has expanded its counterterrorism operations in recent months. The past year has seen a surge in violence by Jewish vigilantes as well as Palestinian militancy.

“So far, 2022 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank in 16 years, according to the United Nations. The situation is fueling a sense that Lapid’s ‘change of government’ has brought the same thing,” my colleague Claire Parker wrote.

Palestinian Israelis are divided and disillusioned as elections approach

For the 5.5 million Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, every Israeli election is a reminder of “their exclusion from the political system that controls so much of their lives,” my colleagues wrote. This is more intensely the case now: repeated rounds of Israeli election campaigns have presented no discussion of the status of millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation while steadily elevating the interests of sometimes extremist Jewish settlers living amid them.

The much-vaunted Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements forged between Israel and a handful of Arab monarchies, deepened the sense of Palestinian alienation and made the already dim prospect of a viable independent Palestinian state all the more remote. For many Israelis, this is not a problem; for the Palestinians, it is their reality.

“The Israeli population has a habit of not remembering the conflict and the occupation because it is a hidden subject,” Rula Hardal, an Israeli-Palestinian political scientist at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, told the Post.

But the problem for Palestinians is even closer to home. The Palestinian National Authority (PA) – the political entity that controls the West Bank with the support of Israel and Western powers, in particular the United States – is in the midst of a crisis of legitimacy. Its 87-year-old leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has maintained his grip on power for a generation and shows little interest in giving it up. Ordinary Palestinians and civil society activists say they chafe at the PA’s growing authoritarianism, defined by Abbas’s penchant for ruling by fiat.

The last round of Palestinian elections took place in 2006; any Palestinian born in 1987 or later could not vote in a Palestinian election. In 2007, a violent split between Abbas’s Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas faction saw the latter seize power in Gaza and cripple Palestinian politics. This stagnation has been compounded by an Israeli blockade of Gaza and the entrenchment of a largely effective Israeli system of control over the West Bank.

Last year, Abbas postponed the first elections scheduled in 15 years; some analysts have suggested that this decision was motivated by his fear of losing control to rivals inside and outside his party. Last month, representatives of Fatah and Hamas met on the sidelines of an Arab League summit in Algeria and announced their intention to hold elections within a year. But back home, there was little optimism about what this apparent new understanding might bring.

Netanyahu looks set to return to power, Israeli exit polls show

For years, the PA has functioned as the guarantor of security for Israel and the United States. He has been a helpless bystander as Israel has expanded settlements in parts of the West Bank and achieved what critics describe as a “creeping annexation” of Palestinian lands. It coordinates security operations with Israel and conducts raids and arrests on Israel’s behalf. If the ailing Abbas has a successor, it is rumored to be Hussein al-Sheikh, one of the PA’s main points of contact with Israeli security agencies and a well-known figure in Washington. He is also deeply unpopular among Palestinians.

“The PA keeps a lid on the joint,” Diana Buttu, a former spokeswoman for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), told me. But the chaotic and ossified nature of the system presided over by Abbas means that few Palestinians have much hope for real elections to reinvigorate their moribund political status quo. “It’s not even a question of who” will follow sick Abbas, Buttu added, but “a question of how” this transition may even occur.

“It’s not entirely Abbas’s fault: we live under a deliberately cruel occupation, and everything has been done to derail the PA and present them as contractors for Israeli security,” the Guardian told the Guardian. Hanan Ashrawi, a former senior PLO leader who resigned in 2020.

Ashrawi warned that current conditions portend trouble. “The weaker the system, the more it closes in on itself and the more oppressive it becomes,” she said. “I don’t know what shape the future will take. … It could be peaceful. But the longer it takes to see real change, the more likely violence becomes. If you don’t allow peaceful and democratic ways to transfer power, people will find other ways to express themselves.

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