Hamas prefers Netanyahu over other prime minister hopefuls

There's no love lost between Hamas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the movement's leaders apparently think he is the best they can hope for in the upcoming elections.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media at his residency in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2019  Photo by REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun.

Mar 5, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — As Israel gears up to hold its parliamentary elections April 9, Al-Monitor learned of political debates within Hamas about which Israeli prime minister candidate might be the least problematic for the group.

Hamas seems to prefer that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remain in office, but that possibility became a bit less likely Thursday after Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended that Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu's poll numbers dropped, but he has overcome such doubts before.

Echoing a phrase often used by US President Donald Trump, Netanyahu called the allegations a "witch hunt" and pledged to remain in office.

The Israeli Central Elections Committee closed the applications process Feb. 21, with 47 parties signed up to run for the 21st Knesset, according to The Jerusalem Post.

Poll results released March 1 by Israeli news group Kan predict Netanyahu's Likud Party will take 29 of 120 seats in Israel’s parliament — a three-seat drop from results a week before. The new poll showed his party's biggest rival, the newly formed Blue and White party, nabbed three more seats, giving it 37. Blue and White is an alliance between Benny Gantz's Israel Resilience Party and Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid.

After the attorney general recommended Netanyahu be indicted, Gantz urged Netanyahu to resign.

The Kan poll predicts Netanyahu will not be able to bring together an alliance after the elections.

A Hamas source spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity about meetings the movement held in mid-February to discuss Israel’s elections. The source noted that the majority of Hamas politicians who attended the meeting would rather Netanyahu remain in office.

The source said this preference for Netanyahu over his rivals stems from him allowing Qatar to provide money to the Gaza Strip. He added that Hamas sees him as the most appropriate Israeli figure to communicate with to reach a long-term truce.

Also, “The majority of Hamas’ political leadership prefers Netanyahu because they were able to reach the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal in October 2011 with him. This [could mean] a greater chance for another exchange deal with Hamas in return for the two Israeli soldiers — Aaron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — captured during the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014,” the source noted.

Hamas leader Yahya Moussa refused to name a choice from among the running Israeli parties. He told Al-Monitor, “Hamas believes all Israeli parties are hostile to the Palestinian people, be it affiliated with the left wing or right wing. All Israeli parties deny the rights of our people and, most importantly, the return of Palestinian refugees who emigrated from their villages and cities in 1948. They also deny us our right to the city of Jerusalem, which Israel has taken as its capital.”

Moussa affirmed that Hamas will deal with the winning party just the way it has with Netanyahu, based on a "calm-for-calm" principle.

He stressed that Hamas will continue to organize the weekly marches of return, which began almost a year ago aiming to break the Israeli siege. He said Hamas will boost these protests' popular momentum to pressure any future Israeli prime minister to end the siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Ayman al-Rafati, an expert on Israeli affairs and a political author for the Hamas-affiliated Al-Resalah website in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas favors Netanyahu's survival as head of the Israeli government because he seeks to avoid an extended war against Gaza and maintains calm-for-calm balance in managing the Palestinian front.”

He added, “Hamas doesn't want the Blue and White party to take over the premiership because its best-known leaders were former military figures. This may increase the chances of the new Israeli government pursuing military options against Hamas.”

The Blue and White party includes prominent Israeli figures such as Moshe Ya'alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Ya'alon was defense minister when Israel launched its war on Gaza in 2014, which killed 2,147 Palestinians, including 530 children. Meanwhile, Palestinians view Ashkenazi as a war criminal, since he was the army's chief of staff during the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip in 2008, which led to the deaths of 1,500 Palestinians and destroyed a lot of infrastructure.

“Hamas doesn't favor the victory of the leftist parties in the elections, such as the Labor Party, which won the Israeli elections in 1992 and 1999," Rafati noted. "The left wing will strive to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinian Authority [PA] to conclude a settlement agreement. Back in 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister of Israel who headed the Labor Party, signed the Oslo Accord with the PA. Hamas does not want a similar agreement in the future, because it would mean recognizing Israel's right to 78% of historic Palestine, which Hamas rejects."

Ibrahim Abu Jaber, director of the Center for Contemporary Studies in the northern Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, told Al-Monitor, “I think Hamas doesn't favor a leftist or centrist figure in the post of prime minister of Israel because these parties want to reach a peace agreement with President [Mahmoud] Abbas and not with Hamas. Netanyahu, however, wants to reach a peace agreement with Hamas and not President Abbas. [Those favoring Abbas] may be more inclined to 'deal' with Hamas by adopting military deterrence and imposing penalties.”

He explained, “For example, when the leader of the centrist Kadima Party — Ehud Olmert — took over the Israeli government in 2006, he imposed the ongoing Israeli siege against the Gaza Strip after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary [legislative] elections.”

Abu Jaber said Olmert was very close to reaching a peace agreement with Abbas during the 2008 negotiations, but resigned that year after facing corruption charges.

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