As Israel's far right parties celebrate, Palestinians shrug

The apparent comeback of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the dramatic rise of his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies in Israel’s general election this week have prompted little more than shrugs from many Palestinians

Isabel Debre
Thursday 03 November 2022 06:07 GMT

The apparent comeback of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the dramatic rise of his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies in Israel's general election this week have prompted little more than shrugs from many Palestinians.

“It's all the same to me,” Said Issawiy, a vendor hawking nectarines in the main al-Manara Square of Ramallah, said of Netanyahu replacing centrist Yair Lapid and poised to head the most right-wing government in Israel's history.

Over the past month, Issawiy had struggled to get to work in Ramallah from his home in the city of Nablus after the Israeli army blocked several roads in response to a wave of violence in the northern West Bank. “I'm just trying to eat and work and bring something back to my kids," he said.

Some view the likely victory for Netanyahu and his openly anti-Palestinian allies, including ultranationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir who wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the occupied West Bank, as a new blow to the Palestinian national project.

The sharp rightward shift of Israel’s political establishment pushes long-dormant peace negotiations even further out of reach and deepens the challenges facing 87-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autocratic Palestinian Authority already seemed to many Palestinians as little more than an arm of the Israeli security forces.

“If you want to use the metaphor of a ‘nail in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority,’ that was done earlier,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and Cabinet minister. “This election is another step in that same direction.”

During his 12 years in power, before being voted out in 2021, Netanyahu showed scant interest in engaging with the Palestinians. Under his leadership, Israel vastly expanded its population of West Bank settlers — now some 500,000 — and retroactively legalized settler outposts built on private Palestinian land. The measures have entrenched Israel's occupation, now in its 56th year since Israel captured the territory during the 1967 Mideast war.

Palestinians see successive Israeli governments as seeking to solidify a bleak status quo in the West Bank: Palestinian enclaves divided by growing Israeli settlements and surrounded by Israeli forces.

“We had no illusion that this next government would be a partner for peace,” said Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the Palestinian Authority. "It’s the opposite, we see a campaign of incitement that began more than 15 years ago as Israel drifted toward extremism.”

The Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers said the election outcome would “not change the nature of the conflict.”

But for the first time, surging support for Israel’s far right has made the Jewish supremacist party of Ben-Gvir the third-largest in the Israeli parliament.

Ben-Gvir and his allies hope to grant immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinians, deport rival lawmakers and impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted of attacks on Jews. Ben-Gvir is the disciple of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.

On the campaign trail, Ben-Gvir grabbed headlines for his anti-Palestinian speeches and stunts — recently brandishing a shotgun and encouraging police to open fire on Palestinian stone-throwers in a tense Jerusalem neighborhood.

Some Palestinians have found reason for optimism. After Tuesday’s elections, they say, Israel will no longer present to the world the telegenic face of Lapid. A win for extremism in Israel, some say, could bolster the moral case for efforts to isolate Israel, vindicating activism outside the moribund peace process.

“It will lead to some international pressure,” said Mahmoud Nawajaa, an activist with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which calls for an economic boycott of Israel as happened to apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s.

“Netanyahu is more honest and clear about his intentions to expand settlements. The others didn’t say it, even if it was happening,” Nawajaa added.

Lapid and his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader who rebranded himself as a national unifier, had presided over a wobbly coalition of right-wing, centrist and dovish left-wing parties, including the first Arab party to ever join a government.

Foreign leaders who shunned the divisive Netanyahu embraced what appeared to be a less ideological government. Bennett became the first Israeli leader to visit the United Arab Emirates after the countries normalized ties — an honor repeatedly denied to Netanyahu. President Joe Biden, who had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, basked in Lapid’s warm welcome during his visit to Israel last summer.

But even as Lapid voiced support for the two-state solution during his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Palestinians saw no sign he could turn words into action. They watched Israel approve thousands of new settler homes on lands they want for a future state.

Israeli military raids in the West Bank have also surged after a series of Palestinian attacks in the spring killed 19 people in Israel. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed, making 2022 the deadliest since the U.N. started tracking fatalities in 2005. The Israeli army says most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and others not involved in confrontations have also been killed.

“In terms of violence, the Lapid government has outdone itself,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst and former PA spokeswoman. “As far as new settlements and de facto annexation, Lapid is Netanyahu.”

Many young Palestinians have given up on the two-state solution and grown disillusioned with the aging Palestinian leadership, which they see as a vehicle for corruption and collaboration with Israel. Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls the West Bank, have remained bitterly divided for 15 years.

A mere 37% of Palestinians support the two-state solution, according to the most recent report from Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. In Israel the figures are roughly the same — 32% of Jewish Israelis support the idea, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

“There is no horizon for a political track with the Israelis,” Odeh said. “We need to look inward ... to re-legitimize our institutions through elections, and stand together on a united political platform.”

But on the crowded, chaotic streets of Ramallah on Wednesday, there was only misery and anger over the daily humiliations of the occupation.

“I hate this place," said Lynn Anwar Hafi, a 19-year-old majoring in literature at a local university. “It’s like the occupation lives inside me. I can’t think what I want to. I can’t go where I want to. I won’t be free until I leave.”

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