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With a clear shift to the right, the Palestinians can't expect much from Israel's General Election

With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]
With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

After a period of relative silence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has announced his hope that the Israeli elections will end with someone at the helm who believes in peace, meaning an opponent of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This announcement, the first of its kind, provoked reactions from Hamas and Israel. The former pointed out that while Abbas is conciliatory towards Israel, he is using hostile language with fellow Palestinians in Gaza and Hamas. Meanwhile, Netanyahu announced that Abbas's statement means that he welcomes the withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, announced by his opponents.

What is the Palestinian factor in the Israeli elections, and how will it affect the winners and losers? Which Israeli party do the Palestinian Authority and Hamas consider to be the best for them or the least bad?

With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

With elections weeks away, Israel pounds Gaza – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The 21st Israeli General Election next month is marked by intense competition between the right-wing Likud and the Blue and White party led by former generals; they are the two major parties. There aren't significant differences in the percentage of votes each one is expected to win, so this leaves room to talk about their main positions towards the Palestinians and the formation of the next government. Opinion polls show a shift to the right and far right in Israel. Other candidates have a lot to do to catch up.

Dealing with the Palestinian situation is the hottest issue in Israel at the moment and it is a common denominator between all parties. In terms of the relationship with Hamas, their positions vary from favouring its continued control over Gaza and a rejection of the idea of taming the movement and pushing it towards moderation; it is believed that it may change strategically and temporarily, but will never abandon its underlying ideology. Those on the Israeli right who adopt this position believe that it is unacceptable to accept an armed Hamas-led state alongside Israel, even if its leadership demonstrates pragmatic flexibility.

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On the other hand, the centre and what remains of the Israeli left believe that the PA's weakness and the relative strength of Hamas pose a threat to Israel. In Gaza, the danger lies in the emergence of a Hamas state, whereas in the West Bank, the danger is the potential for establishing a larger Hamas state that adopts the Gaza model and threatens Tel Aviv if the PA collapses.

Although some in the right-wing camp, as well as the far right, do not pay too much attention to a different Palestinian leadership, be it Hamas or Fatah, they claim that Israel will determine its own conditions for dialogue. These conditions are an end to violence, disarmament, a commitment to existing agreements and recognition of Israel. A few Israeli parties have shown noticeable flexibility over the possibility of talking to Hamas.

Hamas's continued control over Gaza and its gradual strengthening, while the PA declines, could mean predictable changes to the way that Israeli parties adopt positions towards the Islamic Resistance Movement if the situation remains the same. This is despite the fact that the Israeli options, as revealed by a general a few days ago, include either recognising Hamas's authority in Gaza or waging a military offensive to eliminate it. Both options have advantages and disadvantages.

As for talk about the future of Israel's relationship with the PA, the generals' Blue and White party has not hidden its desire to reproduce in the West Bank the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza, or at least parts of it, because it believes that Israel's main task is to determine safe and defensive borders that ensure its security. Such borders, it believes, should encompass settlement blocs, security zones, and the Jordan Valley. It also believes that Israel must maintain a unified Jerusalem and ensure a Jewish majority within the state.

This disengagement is rejected by the Israeli right for the same reason that it opposed the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Right-wingers fear that it establishes a belief amongst the Palestinians that Israel is fleeing under the blows dealt by the resistance groups.

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As such, the West Bank is the real battlefield for the Palestinians and Israelis and is present in the campaign literature of all parties. To this end, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government has been establishing more facts on the ground, from new and bigger settlements to reinforcing the state's security presence. At the same time, evidence of what little Palestinian sovereignty there has been, even in Area A, has been whittled down. Israeli law is also imposed upon the Jewish settlers.

Today, then, the West Bank is in the eye of the election storm across the political spectrum. The annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory is on the agenda, especially where the settlement blocs are located; they will become part of Israel and, so the theory goes, will not be disputed by the Palestinians. The parties stressed that they will refuse to concede any of these areas in future peace deals. The recent attacks that resulted in the killing and wounding of Israelis, has only increased the threat posed to Palestinians by Israel's electoral vision for the West Bank.

In the same context, the Great March of Return protests in Gaza has also figured largely in campaign propaganda. The parties have taken turns in accusing the government of failing to stop the protests and the decline of security measures against resistance groups, despite occasional successes. It seems that Israel may have won the battle here, but it has lost the war.

Palestinians along the Gaza-Israel border reaffirm the 'Right of Return' and get shot by IOF - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestinians along the Gaza-Israel border reaffirm the 'Right of Return' and get shot by IOF – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

In the past, at Israeli election time, the oft-repeated slogan has been, "Palestinian blood is the price on the altar of the Israeli ballot box." This has carried a lot of credibility in previous elections, but not every one of them. Israel, remember, sheds Palestinian before, during and after elections.

However, the Israelis know full well that engaging in a military offensive against the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, may backfire. Hamas and its military wing have developed, and they understand the nature of the Israeli political arena.

The logical assumption is that Israel will maintain the status quo on the borders of Gaza until after the General Election. We do not expect to see a major military escalation leading to a war, as the negative impact will be worse on the electorate in Israel. Nor will there be a long-term truce, as that would give the current government a boost by reaching an agreement with Hamas, which calls for the destruction of the Zionist state.

Netanyahu is seeking to show Israeli voters that he is behind the army, which believes that an open battle with Hamas will cost Israel a lot in terms of human and economic losses. It will also impede the effort to uncover Hamas tunnels on the eastern border of Gaza.

The most striking aspect of the Israeli election is that the PA has not tired of repeating its experiences over the past 30 years, shifting from one party to another since the beginning of the peace process. It shifted between Yitzhak Shamir and his namesake Rabin, Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu throughout his four terms, and Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, as well as Ariel Sharon. Most of them, if not all, made election promises to end the conflict with the Palestinians by means of negotiations or unilateral measures.

READ: Gantz regains lead over Netanyahu despite Iran hacking scandal

On every occasion, the PA's dreams have been shattered when incoming prime ministers have given in to the blackmail of their coalition partners and ignored their campaign promises. Post-election realities usually mean that ideology takes priority over peace.

Looking at the Israeli positions on the aforementioned issues makes the election likely to be affected by external influences, including escalation from Gaza and offensives in the West Bank. Both will lead Israelis to believe that increased tension in the occupied Palestinian territories at this time is not spontaneous because the serious polarisation within the state is very obvious on the eve of General Elections. Such polarisation over the future of the occupied territories may open the way for unexpected scenarios for the Palestinians in light of the competitive bidding between the various political parties and Netanyahu's desire for a fifth term in office.

Given that within Israeli politics it is usual for those with the loudest voice to get the most votes, we can expect to see the right wing to be more successful. This may well see more extreme positions emerging, to the detriment of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. With such a clear shift to the right, the Palestinians can't expect much from Israel's General Election.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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