‘It’s all the same’: As Israel’s far-right surges in election, Palestinians shrug

Amid apathy in West Bank, and anger at Lapid for continuing some of Netanyahu’s policies, some activists find reason for optimism: ‘It will lead to some international pressure’

Israeli soldiers gesture to a vehicle at Tapuah Junction, next to a campaign poster for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu near the West Bank town of Nablus, October 16, 2022. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)
Israeli soldiers gesture to a vehicle at Tapuah Junction, next to a campaign poster for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu near the West Bank town of Nablus, October 16, 2022. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

The apparent comeback of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the dramatic rise of his far-right and ultra-Orthodox allies in this week’s general election have prompted little more than shrugs from many Palestinians.

“It’s all the same to me,” Said Issawiy, a vendor hawking nectarines in the main al-Manara Square of Ramallah, said of Netanyahu replacing centrist Yair Lapid and being poised to head the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Over the past month, Issawiy had struggled to get to work in Ramallah from his home in the city of Nablus after the Israeli army blocked several roads in response to a wave of violence in the northern West Bank. “I’m just trying to eat and work and bring something back to my kids,” he said.

Some view the likely victory for Netanyahu and his anti-Arab allies, including ultranationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir who wants to end Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank, as a new blow to the Palestinian national project.

The rightward shift of Israel’s political establishment pushes long-dormant peace negotiations even further out of reach and deepens the challenges facing 87-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose autocratic organization already seemed to many Palestinians as little more than an arm of the Israeli security forces.

“If you want to use the metaphor of a ‘nail in the coffin of the Palestinian Authority,’ that was done earlier,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian peace negotiator and cabinet minister. “This election is another step in that same direction.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, former Israeli prime minister and the head of Likud party, speaks to his supporters after first exit poll results for the Knesset election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AP)

During his 12 successive years in power, before being voted out in 2021, Netanyahu showed scant interest in engaging with the Palestinians and expanded settlements, entrenching Israel’s military rule over the territory conquered during the Six Day War in 1967.

Palestinian violence and terror attacks against Israeli security forces and civilians also proliferated, amid internal rifts that have seen terror group Hamas rule the Gaza Strip since overturning PA rule in a bloody coup in 2007.

Palestinians see successive Israeli governments as seeking to solidify a bleak status quo in the West Bank: Palestinian enclaves divided by growing Israeli settlements and surrounded by Israeli forces.

“We had no illusion that this next government would be a partner for peace,” said Ahmad Majdalani, a minister in the Palestinian Authority. “It’s the opposite, we see a campaign of incitement that began more than 15 years ago as Israel drifted toward extremism.”

PLO official Ahmad Majdalani (Ahmad Majdalani Facebook page. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Hamas, which openly seeks Israel’s destruction, said the election outcome would “not change the nature of the conflict.”

But for the first time, surging support for Israel’s far right has made the Jewish supremacist party of Ben Gvir the third-largest in the Knesset.

Ben Gvir and his allies hope to grant immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinian assailants, deport lawmakers seen as disloyal to the state and impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted of terror attacks on Israelis. Ben Gvir is the disciple of a racist rabbi, Meir Kahane, who was banned from parliament and whose Kach party was branded a terrorist group by the United States before he was assassinated in New York in 1990.

On the campaign trail, Ben Gvir grabbed headlines for his anti-Arab speeches and stunts — recently brandishing a gun and encouraging police to open fire on Palestinian stone-throwers in a tense East Jerusalem neighborhood.

Israeli far-right lawmaker and head of the Otzmah Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir, gestures after first exit poll results for the Knesset election at his party’s headquarters in Jerusalem, November 2, 2022. (Oren Ziv/AP)

Some Palestinians have found reason for optimism. After Tuesday’s elections, they say, Israel will no longer present to the world the telegenic face of Lapid. A win for extremism in Israel, some Palestinian activists say, could bolster the moral case for international efforts to isolate Israel, vindicating activism outside the moribund peace process.

“It will lead to some international pressure,” said Mahmoud Nawajaa, an activist with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which calls for an economic boycott of Israel.

“Netanyahu is more honest and clear about his intentions to expand settlements. The others didn’t say it, even if it was happening,” Nawajaa added.

Lapid and his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, a former settler leader, had presided over a wobbly coalition of right-wing, centrist and dovish left-wing parties, including the first Arab party to ever join an Israeli government.

Foreign leaders who shunned the divisive Netanyahu embraced what appeared to be a less ideological government. Bennett became the first Israeli leader to visit the United Arab Emirates after the countries normalized ties — an honor repeatedly denied to Netanyahu, even though he was the premier who led to the landmark normalization deal. US President Joe Biden, who had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu, basked in Lapid’s warm welcome during his visit to Israel last summer.

But even as Lapid voiced support for the two-state solution during his address to the UN General Assembly in September, there has been little to indicate he could turn words into action.

The government also continued approving thousands of new settler homes on lands Palestinians want for a future state.

And the government’s anti-terror operations in the West Bank have only expanded after a series of Palestinian attacks in the spring killed 19 people in Israel. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed — most of them assailants or members of terror groups, though not all — making 2022 the deadliest since the UN started tracking fatalities in 2005.

An Israeli settler votes in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba during Israeli elections, November 1, 2022. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

Even as final ballots were still being counted from the election, violence flared up with two Palestinians committing attacks on Thursday before being shot dead by security forces. Israeli police killed a Palestinian hurling Molotov cocktails during a West Bank raid, and a Palestinian who stabbed an Israeli police officer in East Jerusalem was shot and killed.

“In terms of violence, the Lapid government has outdone itself,” said Nour Odeh, a Palestinian political analyst and former PA spokeswoman. “As far as new settlements and de facto annexation, Lapid is Netanyahu.”

Many young Palestinians have given up on the two-state solution and grown disillusioned with the aging Palestinian leadership, which they see as a vehicle for corruption and collaboration with Israel. Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian party that controls parts of the West Bank, have remained bitterly divided for 15 years, making peace talks an even unlikelier prospect.

A mere 37 percent of Palestinians support the two-state solution, according to the most recent report from Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. In Israel the figures are roughly the same — 32% of Jewish Israelis support the idea, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

“There is no horizon for a political track with the Israelis,” Odeh said. “We need to look inward… to relegitimize our institutions through elections, and stand together on a united political platform.”

But on the crowded, chaotic streets of Ramallah on Wednesday, there was only misery and anger over what is experienced as the daily humiliations of the military rule.

“I hate this place,” said Lynn Anwar Hafi, a 19-year-old majoring in literature at a local university. “It’s like the occupation lives inside me. I can’t think what I want to. I can’t go where I want to. I won’t be free until I leave.”

Most Popular
read more: