A week ago, it looked like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might, after four indecisive elections and facing an ongoing corruption trial, finally be on the way out. The eruption of violence between Israel and the Palestinians could change that.
Brief timeout. Until running street violence in Jerusalem crescendoed into Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and Israeli aerial attacks in Gaza, it had seemed likely that Israel was going to get a new government in the coming days, unified only in its opposition to Netanyahu. The path seemed to pass through Mansour Abbas, who leads the United Arab List (Ra’am), which was going to be the final piece of a coalition of anti-Netanyahu parties. Center-left "There is a Future" (Yesh Atid) party leader Yair Lapid, who has the current mandate to form the next government, put Abbas on speed dial.
Amid the crisis, though, Abbas on Monday called a timeout on negotiations. That doesn’t mean the coalition is finished. On Wednesday, at Lapid’s request, Abbas said that he had "no choice but to return to political negotiations to form a government after the fire dies down."
Bennett has pressure, options. The trouble is, the conflict has put a new type of pressure on Jewish Home Party (Yamina) leader Naftali Bennett, who is still the kingmaker or deal breaker. But his role is precarious. As we wrote here last week, Bennett’s far-right coalition can’t afford further defections from those who can’t stomach a deal with either Lapid or Abbas. Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich called Bennett "crazy" for not shutting down negotiations with Abbas, whom he termed a "terror supporter" because of Abbas’ and Ra’am’s alleged Islamist sympathies to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. On Wednesday, perhaps playing to that faction, Bennett called on Netanyahu to "not end the current round in the Gaza Strip until the Hamas pays a heavy price," while adding a swipe at Bibi: "The Likud went from being a ruling party to a party that is failing to run the country and is leading us negligently from blunder to disaster."
How Bibi wins. Bibi, who no doubt sees a way to remain in power, is turning the other cheek. Netanyahu has reportedly reopened the channel to Bennett, offering him the first turn as rotating prime minister. Netanyahu can win by thwarting the Lapid-Bennett alliance (if Lapid can’t form a government, then the mandate shifts to the Knesset, which gets a chance to do so). Or Netanyahu could form his own government with Bennett. And if none of those options pans out, Bibi wins, at least in the short term, by default, since he would remain prime minister while Israel holds a fifth election round — this time against a backdrop of rockets and threats from neighboring Gaza.
Our take. The riots in mixed Arab-Jewish cities reveal that the Israeli-Palestinian faultline has spilled into Israel proper. Arab-Israelis are 20% of the population, and while they have their local issues — including budget, crime and infrastructure — Jerusalem has provided a spark. Abbas, who campaigned on local politics, could be well-positioned to bridge these communities if given the chance. While Bibi and the right may be inclined to toss Abbas aside, given the political currents, Ben Caspit writes today that "the real remedy" to endless strife is "Arab participation in the country’s governance and decision-making." Afif Abu Much, who has tracked Israeli Arab politics for Al-Monitor, tells me that Abbas’ fate depends on the length and costs of the Israel-Gaza conflict; there is still a role for him to play, but the war and the related politicking complicates his position.
Read more. Mazal Mualem has the latest on the prospects for government formation here.
Five takes on Israeli-Palestinian violence
1. Palestinian opposition under threat …
In the weeks since President Mahmoud Abbas postponed the Palestinian elections, a number of political activists opposing the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority have come under attack. Ahmad Melhem spoke with Nizar Bannat, a candidate who went into hiding earlier this month after unknown men threw stun grenades and fired live ammunition into his West Bank home while he and his children were inside. Just hours before the attack, Bannat’s electoral list had called on the European Union to cut off funding for the PA. “If this isn’t a murder threat, then I don’t know what is,” Bannat said.
2. …and sidelined on social media
Meanwhile, Palestinian activists say they’re also being silenced online. Both Twitter and Instagram blocked or suspended accounts that were posting about the events in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where a number of Palestinian families face eviction from their homes. The social media platforms blamed the deleted posts on a technical error, but Entsar Abu Jahal explains why activists believe the Twitter and Instagram suspensions were deliberate.
3. Why are Palestinian protesters smiling during arrests?
As a form of resistance, young Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem are choosing to smile during their arrests at the hands of Israeli security forces. Daoud Kuttab writes that “these smiles — recorded on cellphones and distributed widely — reflect a new paradigm of fearless young Palestinians.” The international solidarity for the youth-led protests, however, was dampened the moment Hamas militants fired rockets from Gaza into Israel. As Kuttab puts it: “Western leaders forgot the context and started repeating the phrase, ‘Israel has the right to defend itself.’”
Update. Kuttab, recently back from Jerusalem, observes that the Biden administration, which is sending Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr to the region, has few cards in dealing with Palestinians in Jerusalem and Gaza, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas carries little or no influence. The United States considers Hamas, which rules Gaza, a terrorist group, and neither the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, nor Israel holds sway over Jerusalem Palestinians.
4. Hamas, Islamic Jihad vow to keep fighting
Hana Salah and Adnan Abu Amer have the view from the Gaza Strip, where the militant factions have vowed to continue their aerial campaign in the face of Netanyahu’s threat. Salah traces the links of the Israel-Gaza fighting to the protests in Jerusalem; Abu Amer concludes that while Hamas may have gained support given Abbas and the PA’s weakness, there may be diminishing returns given the scope and intensity of the Israeli air attacks in Gaza.
5. Jordan’s limited Jerusalem options
Jordan is ramping up diplomatic efforts to quell the violence in East Jerusalem, which could pose a threat to the Hashemite custodianship of the holy city’s sacred sites. As Osama al-Sharif writes, the kingdom “finds itself once more on a collision course with Israel, in particular over the status of Al-Aqsa Mosque.” An Israeli raid on the mosque, which is considered Islam’s third holiest site, left hundreds of Palestinians wounded on Monday. Amman has described Jerusalem as a “red line,” but analysts say there’s little the Jordanian government can do to prevent Israel’s far-right from challenging its role at Al-Aqsa.
ICYMI: Gaza’s dejected youth
Young people in the impoverished Gaza Strip feel hopeless after Abbas decided to indefinitely postpone the May 22 elections, said Al-Monitor’s Gaza-based columnist Hana Salah. Salah warns of further violence if the long-awaited Palestinian elections are canceled outright, and explains why a majority of Gaza youth choose to support militant factions like Hamas. Listen to the full podcast here.
One cool thing: Poland’s pregnant Egyptian mummy
An Egyptian mummy that archaeologists for decades believed was that of a male priest is in fact a pregnant woman. A team of Polish scientists conducting a radiological examination discovered a fetus inside the mummy, which dates back to the first century BC and was donated to the University of Warsaw in 1826. The new imaging suggests the mummy, which was buried with a rich set of amulets, was a high-status woman who died in her 20s during her last trimester of pregnancy. Muhammed Magdy writes that the discovery has sparked calls for Poland to return the mummy to Egypt and has triggered a debate over whether the pregnant mummy really is the first of its kind.
What we’re listening to — Ebtesam Al-Ketbi on how the GCC manages the US-China competition
Dr. Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, president of the Emirates Policy Center, tells Andrew that while the GCC will do business with China, "the US model can’t be defeated." Ketbi also discusses her personal journey as distinguished academic to founder of one of the most impactful and influential think tanks in the region. Check out the podcast here.
What we’re reading: Saudi Arabia’s post-pandemic rebound
Saudi Arabia “responded quickly and decisively to the COVID-19 crisis” with fiscal, financial and employment support programs that helped cushion the blow for Saudi workers, the International Monetary Fund said in a recent report. Riyadh’s push to digitize financial services, including through online business and cashless transactions, also helped in the recovery. To keep the economic gains going, the IMF suggests Saudi policymakers continue Vision 2030’s modernization reforms, which aim to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil exports.