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The Palestinians and Arabs await the new Israeli government with interest 

September 27, 2019 at 9:26 pm

Leader of the Blue and White political alliance, former chief of staff of the Israeli army, Benny Gant (L) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) [Anadolu Agency]

The Israeli election result makes it possible to look at the regional positions taken in response to the apparent gains of the Blue and White Party, and the fall in support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. While Hamas does not seem keen on the victory of the former, led by ex-Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz, the Palestinian Authority has welcomed what looks like Netanyahu’s defeat and wants to help Gantz to form a government.

Across the region, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman seem to resent Netanyahu’s defeat because he provided them with a political umbrella in the White House. The government in Tehran, however, will be happy to see the back of the current Israeli Prime Minister whose main priority has been to instigate a war against Iran.

The Palestinian issue dominated the election campaigns of the major parties, and the people of Palestine are affected by the results of the poll more than anyone else. They believe, rightly so, that the results are likely to cast a long shadow over their already dire situation. No doubt the issue will feature prominently in the discussions to form a ruling coalition. The right and far-right blocs will present their demands on what to do about the Palestinians, in line with their extremist ideologies.

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Although it is 13 years since the people of Palestine had the opportunity to take part in free and fair elections, they watched the Israeli process with great interest. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had, albeit indirectly, pushed hard for Netanyahu’s defeat. He implied in several statements that the Israelis should vote for peace and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Throughout the election campaign, the PA Presidential headquarters hosted a number of meetings and visits with Israeli peace activists, including those who seek normalisation of relations between the Arab world and Israel. “Vote for any candidate but Netanyahu” was the implicit message that came out of Ramallah.

The PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, led by Fatah Central Committee member Muhammed Al-Madani, even took the unconventional step of preparing a document entitled “Palestinian attitudes towards the core issues of conflict with Israel”. Printed in Hebrew, it was distributed across Israel in an effort to influence voters before they went to the polling stations.

The PA’s fears of another Netanyahu victory in particular, and the extreme right-wing in general, are logical. The longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history is intent on eliminating the so-called “two state solution” to which the PA and Abbas are committed. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah has put all of its eggs in Israel’s basket in this respect and left itself no room for manoeuvre.

The de facto ruling party in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, seems to have tacitly interfered with the Israeli election process by reaching security and humanitarian understandings with the government. These meant that Gaza was relatively calm, allowing the Israeli electorate to cast their votes without the sound of rockets and air raid sirens. The message to the Israelis was that Netanyahu — the self-styled “master of security” — is worthy of re-election and being prime minister for the fifth time.

This does not mean that Hamas prefers Netanyahu to his rivals, but the feedback provided to the movement in previous years has led it to conclude that it is a case of “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know”. That was one reason why Hamas negotiated a major prisoner exchange deal with Netanyahu in 2011, and the movement is counting on reaching a new deal with him to close this issue, which is exhausting for all concerned.

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The movement also understands that Netanyahu generally accepts the status quo, meaning that he may allow Hamas to remain in control of Gaza without thinking about far-reaching and costly attempts to overthrow it and restore Ramallah’s control over the Gaza Strip. This is what Netanyahu’s rival Gantz and others have hinted at in an effort on their part to suggest a resumption of negotiations with the PA in Ramallah.

Hamas, of course, remembers Benny Gantz as the commander of the Israel Defence Forces during the 2014 military offensive, and the assassination of senior military leader Ahmed Ja’abari in 2012. Gantz might start a new offensive against Gaza and may well be trigger-happy. Moreover, his partners in the Blue and White leadership, such as Moshe Ya’alon, Gabi Ashkenazi and Yair Lapid, appear to Hamas to be more dangerous. They have far-right aspirations and may resort to assassinating Palestinian leaders.

Regionally, while Al-Sisi and Bin Salman make no secret of their support for Netanyahu, Jordan’s King Abdullah II is less enthusiastic. It is noteworthy that Arab monitoring of the second General Election in Israel this year took place without clear intervention, as happened in the previous poll in April. There were no phone calls between Arab leaders and Netanyahu, nor invitations to visit Arab capitals, although the “secret” communication between them is at their peak during these times. However, there were no Arab-Israeli meetings with Netanyahu until the last minute before polling day.

Cairo has little enthusiasm for finding a replacement for Netanyahu, which explains why it has not communicated with the Blue and White, Labour or Joint List candidates. Nevertheless, Egypt’s ambassador and diplomats in Tel Aviv sent periodic reports, which indicated that Netanyahu had a great chance of winning, despite the fact that there was a warning that anything could happen.

Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has apparently never met Benny Gantz face to face, but if the Egyptian President is asked which Israeli candidate he prefers, he would immediately say Netanyahu because he has done him so many favours. It was Netanyahu, for example, who allowed Al-Sisi to sidestep formal agreements and deploy significant numbers of Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula. They talk on the phone about Gaza and Sinai. Netanyahu has also done favours for Al-Sisi with US President Donald Trump; the Israeli leader’s presence is obvious in the relationship between Cairo and Washington.

Jordan’s position is complicated. On the one hand, the security and military coordination between Amman and Tel Aviv is strong. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s announcement that he will annex the Jordan Valley if he wins the election produced a negative reaction from the Hashemite Kingdom. It seems that King Abdullah would prefer to sit with a new Israeli prime minister who understands the security and intelligence cooperation between the two countries and appreciates its importance.

READ: Israel analysts warn of ‘increasingly chilly’ relations with Jordan

Under the rule of Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia believes that Netanyahu is a comfortable option, especially in terms of exchanging messages about the perceived common enemy, Iran. The Saudi Crown Prince agrees with Netanyahu about the Iranian threat, and they are both wary of the upcoming meeting between Trump and President Hassan Rouhani.

So what does Iran itself think of the election result in Israel? There was an unmistakable welcome for Netanyahu’s defeat, albeit with concern that he might still form the next government if he can put a viable coalition together. It is Netanyahu, remember, who has put great pressure on Tehran on the political, security and military levels, and used his influence over the White House to impose further sanctions and get Trump to pull the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Finally, it has to be said that Israel’s General Election can never be an entirely domestic issue, such is the impact of the Zionist state on regional affairs. The Palestinians, Arab states and the wider region will thus await the formation of the coalition government in Israel with great interest, and more than a little trepidation.

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