Hamas and Fatah have clear, opposite interests in Israel’s election outcome
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AnalysisHerzog-Livni victory seen as disaster by Hamas

Hamas and Fatah have clear, opposite interests in Israel’s election outcome

Ordinary Palestinians couldn’t care less about the March 17 vote. Not so the rival West Bank and Gaza leaderships

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni (left) with Mahmoud Abbas (right), president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September 2008 (photo credit: AP/Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)
Then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni (left) with Mahmoud Abbas (right), president of the Palestinian Authority, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, September 2008 (photo credit: AP/Keystone/Alessandro della Valle)

RAMALLAH — A Palestinian making his way from Ramallah to Nablus these days would easily be tempted to think that the strongest party in Israel is Eli Yishai’s far-right Yachad.

It’s hard to miss the billboards, bearing portraits of Yishai, Yoni Chetboun and others, which are ubiquitous throughout the West Bank. Here and there, one can spot photos of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon.

But despite this presence of right-wing politicians on roads used by Palestinians, it must be said that the residents of the West Bank could hardly care less about the Israeli elections. To them, the vote is another one of those Israeli rituals that recur every two or three years without effecting change.

You can hear it wherever and whenever you visit the West Bank: left or right, it’s all just sand, new settlement construction, illegal outposts and the like. For the average Palestinian, there is no difference between Labor leader Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu, Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

But that’s not the case where the Palestinian leadership is concerned, be it Hamas in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the West Bank. Their interest in the Israeli elections is enormous, bordering on obsessive.

Any conversation with an Israeli journalist these days centers on each party’s chances of winning. Every poll released in Israel makes waves in the Palestinian press, and even more so in the corridors of power. Each of the entities, Hamastan and Fatahland, has its own preferences and wishes, and even within these movements, disputes rage as to which party would be “better for the Palestinians.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) at Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Take Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose official position is that the elections are solely the concern of Israeli citizens, and that he is willing to negotiate with whichever party is voted in. This, however, is where the official position ends: There is no doubt that Abbas would like to see Zionist Union heads Herzog and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni get elected. Abbas personally knows and appreciates them both. He has met the two in the past, publicly and privately. He knows their positions and believes they are serious in their intentions to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

But Abbas and his close circle are also aware of the integral weakness of the Israeli center-left camp.

“The left wants a peace agreement, but can’t bring it about. The right can, but doesn’t want to,” was one senior Palestinian Authority official’s take. “Herzog and Livni are very serious people. But we can tell from the polls what sort of coalition they might be able to build if they win the elections. They won’t be able to take a historic, dramatic step to withdraw to the 1967 border. We might enter endless negotiations with them that won’t lead to any agreement, while Israel enjoys international backing because it supposedly has a left-wing government — but in practice, it won’t do things any differently than Netanyahu’s [government].”

This official’s final statement reflects a very popular position among the more hawkish Palestinian Authority officials, including some who are involved in talks with Israel, who believe “Netanyahu is better for the Arabs.”

Newly elected leader of the Israeli Labor party Isaac Herzog meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah. December 01, 2013 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Newly elected leader of the Israeli Labor party Isaac Herzog (left) meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (right) in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 1, 2013. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

In their view, Netanyahu succeeded in serving the Palestinian cause more than any other Israeli prime minister, and without him, the Palestinians would not enjoy such wide international backing for various actions.

“I decided to hang Netanyahu’s portrait next to Arafat’s a long time ago,” a Palestinian journalist associated with the PLO recently told The Times of Israel. “If there is anyone who helped us win the support of the international community and who caused a real rift with the United States, Israel’s closest ally, it’s Netanyahu.”

Those who hold this view see Herzog and Livni as a real threat to the PLO’s ability to take steps in the Security Council or elsewhere in the diplomatic arena.

Abbas and his close circle, on the other hand, understand how costly a Netanyahu victory in the elections could be. As far as they are concerned, if the Likud builds the next government around a right-wing coalition, a clash will be inevitable.

A source close to Abbas told The Times of Israel this week that in such a scenario, a diplomatic breakthrough won’t be expected, settlement construction will continue, the Palestinians will exacerbate their diplomatic moves — and, at some point in 2015, the security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will cease.

Even during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli leadership openly sent messages to Hamas declaring that it doesn’t want to bring the movement down

“It isn’t clear what Netanyahu will do with the taxes [being withheld by Netanyahu as punishment for the PA’s decision to join the ICC and seek Israel’s prosecution for war crimes], but even if he decides to renew their transferal, it won’t mean the security coordination will continue ad infinitum in light of the diplomatic impasse.

“So we all understand that an escalation is only a matter of time. [The Israeli] defense establishment knows it, too. We will be forced to end the cooperation, and the situation on the ground will grow worse and worse until Abbas himself may announce that he’s stopping everything and giving the keys back to Israel. That would be the end of the Palestinian Authority, but we would have no other choice,” continued the source.

“We would, of course, prefer that the two sides hold talks rather than be drawn into another intifada. But we understand that that’s no longer likely to happen under Netanyahu. There’s too much mistrust between him and Abbas.”

Hamas’s nightmare scenario

For Hamas, the issue is less complicated. For its leadership, the nightmare scenario is a Herzog-Livni victory and the progress of peace talks with Abbas.

Should such a scenario transpire, the movement’s popularity would continue to plummet. (A poll released this week by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, or JMCC, has already shown that only 22 percent of Palestinians would vote for Hamas if parliamentary elections were held). In such a scenario, Hamas would also be expected to make efforts to thwart the talks from progressing — even at the cost of another war with Israel.

Members of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas's armed wing, display weapons during a parade marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamist movement’s creation on December 14, 2014 in Gaza City. (photo credit: AFP/MAHMUD HAMS)
Members of the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, display weapons during a parade in Gaza City marking the 27th anniversary of the Islamist Movement’s creation on December 14, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams)

A peace agreement between Israel and Abbas would mean nothing less than an earthquake for Hamas, and so it does not wish to see the two sides progress even to serious talks.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, on the other hand, are “good for Hamas.” Such is the prevailing opinion among the commentators in Gaza, who feel that extensive understandings can be reached with these two — including a long-term ceasefire. Hamas understands that Israel doesn’t want to see the movement crash in Gaza, or its government to collapse. As long as Hamas keeps the peace, so to speak, it remains an ideal partner for Netanyahu — it ensures, for now, that Israel is not attacked with rockets from Gaza, sees to the maintenance of the Gaza Strip, even on a minimal level, and most importantly, provides plenty of proof that “there is no one to negotiate with.”

Even during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli leadership openly sent messages to Hamas declaring that it doesn’t want to bring the movement down. And the highest-ranking officers in the Israel Defense Forces made clear in press interviews during the conflict that there was no intention of harming Hamas’s political leadership.

Hamas is also aware that Egypt has become a more tangible threat to it than Israel, and that Netanyahu and Ya’alon feel great hostility toward Abbas. In other words, it is aware that the only viable path to lifting the blockade over the Gaza Strip lies to the northeast, with Israel, rather than the south, with Egypt.

This is why Hamas is favorably considering tahdiya, or a long-term (but still temporary) ceasefire, as reported by The Times of Israel this week. Under such an arrangement, Hamas would abstain from any military action — including tunnel-digging — for five years, and in return, the blockade on the Gaza Strip would be lifted completely. The Gazan economy would skyrocket, Hamas’s rule would become stable, and as long as Israel, led by Netanyahu, continues to antagonize Abbas in the West Bank, the PLO’s standing would deteriorate there too.

The idea of a long-term ceasefire with Hamas has not been rejected outright by Israeli decision-makers. However, this approach puts Jerusalem at odds with Cairo.

“Israel has forgotten that a thief remains a thief. A murderer remains a murderer. And Hamas was and remains the Muslim Brotherhood,” a senior Egyptian official told The Times of Israel this week. “Even if you reach tahdiya with them, they will eventually attack you.”

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