Recent major developments in Israeli politics are leading Palestinians to wonder what's next for them. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted Dec. 26 to hold early elections April 9, nearly eight months ahead of schedule amid internal disputes and crises.
Palestinians know they will play a central role in the Israeli election campaign, with candidates proposing how to deal with them. Right-wing forces led by the Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi refuse to engage the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in negotiations aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the establishment of a Palestinian state. Both Israeli parties support the ongoing siege of Gaza and sporadic military operations against Hamas. Meanwhile, the Zionist Camp and Meretz, from the Israeli center and left, call for negotiations with the Palestinians while ensuring Israeli security interests. They would like to see Hamas sidelined in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) regain control over the territory.
Some Palestinian factions are claiming to have had a hand in the call for elections. According to the Donia al-Watan website, Ziad al-Nakhala, secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, said that the decision to hold early elections stems from what he called Israel’s defeat in the Nov. 12-13 clashes in Gaza. By this he was alluding to the spurt of violence having led to a cease-fire that resulted in the resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in protest and his party's exit from the Netanyahu government, preludes to the government's collapse.
Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor, “The Israeli government has been shaken due to the Great Return March protests supported by Palestinian military action.”
Regardless of how the Israelis arrived at the decision on early elections, Sufian Abu Zaida, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, related to Maan News what appears to be on the minds of most Palestinians — concern that Israeli politicians will make escalatory moves against Gaza to secure votes, especially those of right-wing Israelis.
The newspaper Al-Quds speculated on Dec. 28, that Israel might mobilize troops as if preparing for war with Gaza to secure votes on the right. Hamas meanwhile is preparing for such an event to be more than political theater.
Qassem told Al-Monitor, “Hamas will not allow the Israeli electoral candidates to increase their chances at the expense of our people. We will be ready to respond to any Israeli attack.”
Emad Abu Awad, a researcher at the Vision Center for Political Development in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor, “According to some Palestinian analyses, Israel might launch a war on Gaza before heading to the polls. But, realistically, this option isn't [feasible]. A war on Gaza might last for a long time, and if Israel fails to settle it and is dealt heavy blows from the resistance, such war might backfire on the Israeli right wing.”
Some Palestinians are counseling self-restraint in the lead up to the vote, to avoid providing the Israeli right a pretext to wage war against them, which initially could increase its electoral chances.
The writer Fayez Abu Shamala wrote in a Dec. 29 piece in Gaza's Felesteen newspaper that Israel might continue trying to appease Gazans with measures to alleviate their suffering — such as increasing the power supply, expanding the fishing zone off Gaza and so on — in return for steering clear of military escalation, thus ensuring calm while at the same time trying to satisfy right-wing voters by agreeing to establish more settlements in the West Bank.
On the Amad news website, Hassan Asfour, former PA minister of civil society organizations, wrote that the Palestinian leadership might shake up the Israeli elections by withdrawing the PLO's recognition of Israel, announcing the establishment of a Palestinian state and halting security coordination with Israel. The idea for doing so would be to possibly improve the electoral odds of those from the Israeli center and left who support negotiations with the Palestinians.
Palestinians have not always had good experiences ahead of Israeli elections. In the run-up to the May 1996 elections, Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered the assassination Yahya Ayyash, a Hamas military leader and bomb maker. Before elections in early 2009, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in December 2008 launched Operation Cast Lead, a 23-day war against Gaza that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians.
Saleh al-Naami, a journalist and expert on the Israeli military, told Al-Monitor, “Gaza is not among the places Netanyahu wants to [use to] make gains before the elections. He will, however, increase settlements in the West Bank because the PA [doesn't challenge Israel.] Israel on Dec. 26 approved the building of 2,200 new settlement units, while it continues seeking normalization with Arab states.”
The London-based New Arab newspaper claimed on Dec. 27 that Netanyahu had asked Egypt to transmit messages to Hamas not to escalate the situation before the elections. If there is an escalation, however, Netanyahu said he would not hesitate to respond militarily.
Amir Bohbot, an expert on Israeli military affairs at Walla website, wrote Dec. 28 that Israeli elections might indeed entail an escalation against Hamas in Gaza. At the same time, Hamas is aware that the elections put Gaza in a precarious situation and any actions by it that add fuel to the fire might not be in the movement's best interest.
Wajih Abu Zarife, a member of the political bureau of the Palestinian People’s Party, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian cause is the most important issue for Israeli election propaganda. Israel will focus on confronting Palestinians at the military and security levels in Gaza and at the political and diplomatic levels in the West Bank. But I don't think Netanyahu will venture into a military battle with Gaza, because that would affect Israel’s domestic front and could have a negative impact on the elections. We are worried that the current Israeli government will give rise to a worse government, one that is even more rightist, as Israelis keep moving toward the far right.”
Indeed, amid the discussion about the lead-up to the elections, Abu Zarife was not alone in his concerns about the election results. Citing Israel's ongoing settlement, raids in West Bank cities and seizure of PA funds, Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor, “Any Israeli government other than Netanyahu’s would be better for Palestinians.”
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