On eve of Israeli elections, Arab Spring's influence still uncertain

Bassem Aly , Monday 21 Jan 2013

With hardline premier Netanyahu set to win another victory in the 22 January elections, it remains to be seen what effect the changing politics of the Arab region has had on the Palestinian issue

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, walks as he arrives to brief the media in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 (Photo: AP)

The electoral alliance between Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is expected by observers to easily win the 22 January legislative elections.

According to most Israeli polls, Netanyahu, who has a tense relationship with some members of the international community over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, will easily win a third term in office. The victory will come courtesy of coalition partners who could push him further to the right.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010 when a settlement building freeze ended. Despite the Arab Spring, the increase in Arab support for the Palestinian cause remains highly in question, especially in light of the domestic complexities of the Arab Spring states.

Arab leaders in Gaza

"The Arabs in general seem to be busy with their domestic politics, and the Palestinians enjoy no backing at all," said Yosri El-Azabawy, an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

El-Azabawy argued that Arab governments have failed to adopt a unified position against Israel, though some Arab Spring states had currently started to address the Palestinian question.

Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar crossed into the Gaza Strip last October in the first visit by a head of state since the Islamist Hamas movement took power in 2007.

The emir inaugurated a $254-million Qatari investment project to rebuild the impoverished Gaza Strip after the 22-day Israeli military incursion in December 2008.

Tunisian foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem followed suit with a visit to Gaza in November, amid renewed attacks on the strip.

One day after, Egyptian Premier Hisham Qandil paid a solidarity visit to Gaza, meeting with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and other Hamas leaders.

"The three visits certainly count for something, but a much more comprehensive approach is needed to fully address the whole reality of the conflict," commented Joe Catron, a Gaza-based US activist.

Qandil urged Israel to abide by its international commitments and agreements, vowing not to "remain silent" about the ongoing Israeli violence against the Gaza Strip, where 1.7 million people live.

El-Azabawy said that Israel aims to make Egypt busy by potentially creating a refugee crisis on its Gaza border, which he argues could have occured if the violence had continued.

"Israel is aware of the politico-ideological linkage between Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which explains Netanyahu's decision to attack Gaza", El-Azabawy said.

On 21 November, Egypt succeeded in brokering a truce between Israel and Hamas after a one-week war that resulted in the death of 140 Palestinians and 5 Israelis.

Catron added that the ceasefire was a gain for both the Palestinian resistance and its regional allies, especially amid a continuous Israeli "apartheid system" in place against Palestinians.

However, Kamel Hawwash, a British-Palestinian professor at the University of Birmingham, argued that the Arab visits to Gaza did not clearly stop the bombing. Rather, diplomatic endeavours proved to be efficient in dealing with the Israeli side.  

Egyptian efforts to bring about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation

"Egypt will probably play a very concrete role in the Palestinian case, but this would require that Egypt first puts its own house in order and overcomes its internal divisions," Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) said.

Egypt sponsored a unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas in 2011, the rival Palestinian factions, to end the seven-year state of Palestinian division, although the deal’s main articles have not been applied so far.

The deal intended to pave the way for presidential and legislative elections by May 2012, but disagreements over the leadership of a transitional government hindered its implementation.

A Cairo-based Palestinian diplomat, Ahmed Moussa, revealed that such deal embodied the "fruit of long Egyptian efforts" to reach a compromise between the Palestinian factions.

On 22 November, Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Prime Minister Ismail Haniya on his "victory," according to a statement issued by Hamas.

Hamas, in return, had expressed its support for Abbas' successful UN recognition bid to grant Palestine non-member observer status in the global body, approved by the General Assembly on 29 November.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal argued that UN recognition would reinvigorate the stalled reconciliation process, which was revived during last week's Abbas-Meshaal talks in Cairo, after each had held separate talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Both leaders agreed to allow Hamas a degree of representation in the historically-led Palestine Liberation Organisation and to create a committee that will supervise the next legislative and presidential elections.

Hawwash believes that Cairo’s role in facilitating inter-Palestinian reconciliation has catalysed the success of the political process, as it was unacceptable for such a matter to "damage Palestinian unity." 

But Netanyahu’s office issued a press statement harshly criticising the meeting.

"This is not the behaviour of somebody seeking peace; Abu Mazen [Abbas] gave an embrace to the head of a terror organisation who only a month ago stated that Israeli should be wiped from the map," the Lebanese Daily Star website quoted the statement as saying.

Netanyahu's new settlements cause US concern 

"The Israeli governments had continuously adopted harsh measures against the Palestinians ahead of the Knesset elections as a campaigning strategy, which signifies a clear, immoral violation of the international law," Moussa commented.

Netanyahu’s government recently announced plans concerning the building of almost 3,000 homes in the West Bank, just before the UN vote on Palestinian recognition. 

The construction will take place in the highly sensitive "E1" area of the West Bank, which lies between annexed East Jerusalem and the nearby Maaleh Adumim settlement. Netanyahu claimed that Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for "3,000 years."

Hawwash said that the "Judaisation" of the Palestinian territories continued unabated and the living conditions for thousands of Palestinians there are "dire."   

Meanwhile, tensions between Netanyahu and US ally President Barack Obama seems to be growing, as the latter accused him of not understanding Israel's best interests.

Former aide to the Egyptian foreign minister, Magda Shahin, told Ahram Online that there has been little "attention" in Washington paid to the Palestinian question ahead of the last US elections.

"Netanyahu was clever enough to change the focus of Washington; now Iran’s nuclear programme is the toughest challenge for Obama," she said. 

UN envoys from several EU states, as well as Russia and China, described the peace process as in "deep freeze" and pointed out that it will be exacerbated by the settlement approvals.

AUC International Relations Professor Bahgat Korany said that strong pro-Israel lobbies such as AIPAC and J-Street have a significant influence on Obama and other state institutions, steering US foreign policy despite uncertainty on disagreements with Netanyahu.

"These lobbies might present conflicting views, but their existence gives an incorrect impression to the Americans that Israel cares about their views more than the Arabs do," Korany adds.

The US did not join the public attack on Israel, but slammed the "provocative" act of the United States' major ally during closed UN Security Council consultations.

"We hope that the Arabs will impose as much pressure as possible on Israel to stop its humanitarian and political violations against Palestinian civilians, but it is still too early to judge the influence of the Arab Spring on the Palestinian cause," Moussa said.

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