With the third victory of Netanyahu’s electoral coalition, the Israel political system has once again receded into that dark chamber wherein governments are formed — an outcome which, as I write this, is still up in the air. The elections results are widely seen as a reflection of the sharp political fragmentation in Israel and the inability of its ruling elites to reach a consensus over their country’s future, a condition that may lead Israeli voters back to the polls for a fourth time. From an Arab perspective, such assessments, no matter how widely shared, have little bearing on Arab and Palestinian interests. Of greater importance to them is the steady gains of the Israeli extreme right — the “hard-right” as it has been termed — over the “soft- right” since the first and second rounds last year. That segment of the Israeli political spectrum now holds 59 Knesset seats, putting it in reach of the necessary majority (61 seats) to form a government. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White coalition receded, by the same degree, to 53 seats. This, moreover, is despite the fact that his adversary, Netanyahu, has been officially indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes and fraud. Normally, in democratic societies, even in Israel, such charges would not be seen as plusses and would propel a candidate to the bottom of the political heap. But that did not happen. Israeli voters not only said they preferred Netanyahu; they told their political elites to give him a fifth mandate. All eyes will probably now turn to Avigdor Lieberman, expecting him to contribute his party’s seven seats (down two from the last time, which sends another message) to help Netanyahu out of his predicament and into a 66-seat majority.
From the Arab perspective, this is not just a shift to the far right. As Saeb Erekat pointed out, it also signifies a rejection of peace. Netanyahu’s victory coincides with the US peace plan which offers recognition for Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley and, therefore, the prospect of annexing these territories to Israel. This is bad news for the Arabs and the Palestinians in particular. In general, such bad news adds to that accumulated over the course of more than seven decades of Israeli sins and transgressions that have sparked fury and curses over the Israeli presence in the region. But there is a problem with this outlook. It restricts the theatre of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict exclusively to the Israeli interior and to whether it tilted leftward towards Rabin, making the Oslo Accords and its products possible, or rightward towards Netanyahu and his like, favouring perpetuation of the occupation, further annexation and perpetual savagery.
Four facts are missing in this picture. The first is that, elections and coalition negotiations aside, Israel has full political, security and economic control over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Although Gaza is situated outside of this framework, it has achieved a form of coexistence with Israel. In fact, in separate negotiations with the Israelis, Gaza is desperately working to achieve an “extended truce” with Israel that, in the small print, will cede full control to Israel. Secondly, despite the results in favour of Netanyahu and his consortium of extremist parties, in this same round, the Arab Joint List scored a remarkable precedent. It now holds 15 seats in the Knesset making it the largest opposition party in Israel. Thirdly, the election of the most extremist faction in Israel may not necessarily form a barrier to the realisation of the Palestinians’ legitimate rights. Egypt obtained its legitimate rights — the restoration of every last centimetre of occupied Sinai — from former terrorists. The Menachem Begin government was no less extremist than Netanyahu and company. The Algerians won independence from the right-wing, colonialist Charles de Gaulle. It was none other than Nixon who opened the doors to negotiations with the Vietnamese which culminated in the independence and unification of Vietnam. Of course, there is a big difference between these cases and the Palestinian-Israeli case. But this simultaneously underscores the need not to reiterate condemnation of Israeli oppression and aggression, but rather to think innovatively about how to achieve Palestinian aims against the backdrop of this reality. Fourthly, there is a fact that Israeli elections can do nothing about. More than six million Palestinians live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. In the last elections, the Palestinians not only won 15 seats, this success opens horizons to the possibility of more than 20 seats with the support of both Arab and Jewish votes.
These four facts should help forge an Arab perspective that departs from customary knee-jerk reactions, such as to put the blame on Israeli fanaticism and imperialism, which does nothing to liberate land and only increases bitterness, or to blame the Arab states as though they don’t already have enough enemies and adversaries to deal with, and interests to protect, or to revert to armed struggle or armed Intifada on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority and everything else built after Oslo is dead. With regard to the latter point, it should be borne in mind that this death is not just the consequence of Israeli aggression. It is also because of a second, militarised, Palestinian Intifada in the context of a severe disparity in the balances of power which Hamas aggravated with its coup against the Palestinian Authority (PA), by violating the PA’s rightful monopoly on the legitimate recourse to arms and by conducting a foreign and security policy that serves not Palestine or the Palestinians, but Gaza alone.
If all the foregoing points are taken into account, it should be possible to arrive to new ways to respond to both the Israeli election results and the “Deal of the Century”. One is to draw up a political and economic strategy to preserve the Palestinian presence in their historic land. A second is to forestall another “Nakba”, or mass expulsion of Palestinians. There are extremist groups in Israel that espouse orchestrating massacres of Palestinians in order to drive them off their land, which would create at Arab borders a tragedy similar to that afflicting Syrian refugees today at the Turkish-Greek border. The third is to open avenues for dialogue and discussion with the Arab MKs and the Jewish MKs that side with them in the Knesset, as well as with all other remaining pro-peace forces among the Israel centre and “soft-right”. The fourth step is to interact with the US initiative on the basis of the understanding that if negotiations have any chance to succeed, then there must be a four-year freeze to Israeli settlement expansion activity and annexation measures. Fifthly, the Arabs/Palestinians must prepare themselves for negotiations, starting with an in-depth study of similar cases of government entities inside a state, such as Soweto and Swaziland in South Africa, or Gibraltar in Spain. Lastly, Palestinian negotiators should aim to ensure cohesion and geographical contiguity of the envisioned Palestinian entity, inclusive of outlets to the Mediterranean. With creative thinking, the Arabs can do all this and much more.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly