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Analysis

Palestinians wait to see which PM Netanyahu got reelected

Will they find the Likud leader who rejected a two-state solution, or the election victor who quickly reversed that position?

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.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Jerusalem, September 15, 2010. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

It didn’t take much time. Only 24 hours after the results of the Israeli elections were out on Wednesday, and just a couple of hours after the release of the near-final vote count, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory.

“There is no seriousness on the part of Israel’s government to reach a political solution that will bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s statement — since retracted — against the creation of such a state. “As far as we are concerned, this is not a new position.”

It is still hard to explain what exactly the PA president meant. Was it that on the very same day that the PLO Executive Council was slated to meet in order to debate continuing security cooperation with Israel, Abbas was hinting that the coordination was nearing its end? Was Abbas signaling that he intends to give the keys back to Israel and let it run the West Bank? Or maybe his was merely an empty threat made to frighten Netanyahu voters, who don’t seem especially spooked by the prospect of the demise of the two-state solution?

The head of the PLO negotiation team, Saeb Erekat, had set out on Tuesday what the PA’s next steps would be. The tireless Erekat realized as soon as the exit polls came out that Netanyahu would be the next prime minister, and announced that the Palestinians intended to accelerate their moves against Israel in The Hague.

It’s not likely the PA will stop there. With the impending establishment of a right-wing government, which will face a cold international community and US administration, the PA could well turn again to the Security Council demanding that the UN body recognize a Palestinian state. Would the US administration use its veto to stop such a decision? Perhaps not.

But appeals to the International Criminal Court or the UN Security Council seem like the least of Netanyahu’s problems with the Palestinians right now. In contrast with the priorities that much of the media is highlighting, the main problem looming over the new government is not Israeli housing prices or (it seems) not even Iran, but rather the tax-money transfers and the security coordination that are currently in the sights of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership and Fatah. That is, if Israel doesn’t release the tax money to the Palestinians soon, the security cooperation stops.

The consequences would be clear: First, dozens of Hamas and Jihad operatives will do whatever their hearts desire without preventative measures by the PA. Second, the PA police, which repeatedly prevents friction with the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank, would not do this anymore — and the potential for escalation would rise.

Logic states that now that the elections are over, Netanyahu will be free from electoral considerations for at least the near future, and will allow the transfer of the tax funds. But this would not be an easy move for the prime minister. This might be Palestinian money in every way, merely collected by Israel on the PA’s behalf, but Netanyahu has already declared in the past that as long as the PA doesn’t reverse its moves at the ICC, Israel will keep the money. It is a weapon on the diplomatic battlefield.

So what should he do? How exactly is it possible to release the tax money while preventing the PA from turning to The Hague. There is no clear answer at this stage.

Despite the declarations from senior PA officials, it must be said, the people closest to Abbas were very careful on Wednesday not to attack Netanyahu personally. His inner circle sounded rather lost in admiration of Netanyahu the politician. “It is surprising, I must tell you. He is a leader. Whether we like it or not, he proved that he is able to extricate himself from difficult situations,” said one official.

Another Fatah official, a confidant of Abbas, explained that it would be easier in some ways for the PA to deal with Netanyahu than it would have been with his defeated dovish rival Isaac Herzog. “Netanyahu’s positions are known to us. There will not be unnecessary games here.”

Both officials said the PA will not hurry to take steps before it becomes clear what Netanyahu’s intentions are. True, on Thursday the PLO Executive Council met to discuss ways to implement its decision to halt security coordination, but there are not expected to be any new decisions that have meaningful consequences on the ground.

Another question worrying everyone in the PA is which Netanyahu the Palestinians will meet in the coming months. Will it be Netanyahu from the end of the campaign — nationalistic, aggressive, looking to fight? Or will it be the prime minister who held secret talks through his emissary Yitzhak Molcho, and even came to various far-reaching, though unfinalized, understandings?

This question worries the Egyptians as well. On Wednesday it was revealed that Egypt would receive gas worth $1.2 billion from Israel’s Tamar field in the Mediterranean. But Egypt is worried about an escalation in the West Bank. It is a mystery for the Jordanians too. Will the prime minister be the Netanyahu who knew how to calm tensions a few months ago over Jerusalem, or the Netanyahu who allowed far-right Likud MKs to foment unrest in the city in the first place?

Meanwhile, the international community and the United States won’t sit idly by if settlement construction intensifies, as per Netanyahu’s promise during his campaign. The EU called Wednesday for talks between Israel and the PA to restart. If that doesn’t happen — and it’s not likely to — then the EU is expected to take concrete steps against Israel that will harm its economy.

Will this change the policies of an Israeli right-wing government? Probably not. But it will undoubtedly encourage the Palestinians to keep up their diplomatic struggle initially — and then, maybe, even their popular struggle — against Israel and Netanyahu.

Jibril Rajoub, secretary general of the Fatah Central Committee, sounded dryly amused Wednesday morning after the results were released. “God help us both,” he said with his characteristic cynicism.

Rajoub, who spent 17 years in Israel prisons, and followed the elections closely, explained to The Times of Israel all the “advantages” of a Netanyahu victory for the Palestinians.

Jibril Rajoub, 2008 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Jibril Rajoub (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

“This will only hurt you, the Israelis. Netanyahu said he is against a Palestinian state? That’s wonderful for us. This will just prove to the international community that we have no one to speak to on the Israeli side.

“And I want to say something else to you and the Israelis. There will be a Palestinian state whether Netanyahu wants one or not. In the end, Netanyahu and the right will also understand that there is no other way than a two-state solution,” continued Rajoub.

“We are not going to wave a white flag. The right does not scare us, but only hurts Israel and regional stability. We are here because we have no other land. The right needs to understand that it will not receive security as long as there is no peace. It either continues on the path of settlements, a declaration of war against us, or it doesn’t. If the new government in Israel continues its previous policies, then it will lead to conflict.”

And what about security coordination?

“The whole question of security coordination and ties to Israel depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Every issue. That is, if there is a Palestinian state, it will influence the connections between Israel and the PA at every level,” responded Rajoub.

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