Israel elections: voters ignored the Middle East – results may force them to engage

A Palestinian man reads a newspaper with the front-page headline about the results of the Israeli election, in Gaza City (Reuters)

Yossi Melman

Middle East Eye  /  March 26, 2021

No one seemed moved by Arab normalisation or the Iranian shadow war. But Netanyahu’s self-serving courtship of the Arab vote could open the door for Palestinian negotiation.

Israel is stuck. For the fourth time in two years national elections have produced a deadlock. Four times Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to form a coalition government of all shapes – narrow and broad – and failed.

The election results prove that Israel is in a deep crisis. Its society is highly divided and its political system is further deeply fragmented with each round of elections.

Thirteen lists will be represented in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Eleven Jewish and two Palestinian. They cover the entire spectrum, ranging from right-wing parties (some advocating fascist, racist and anti-LGTB notions), to ultra-orthodox parties calling for the establishment of Jewish theocracy and monarchy, and liberal centrist, left-wing and communist movements.

Aside from the two major rivals – Netanyahu’s Likud taking 25 percent of the vote and 30 seats, and Yesh Atid led by Ya’ir Lapid with 14 percent and 17 – all the other parties won only between four and seven percent of voters each.

Practically, the elections revolved around one topic. It was not even the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused the death of more than 6,000 Israelis in a population of 9.2 million people.

The only game in town was whether voters were for or against the controversial persona of Netanyahu, who stands trial charged with corruption and bribery, but refuses to step down.

Not in the discourse

Foreign policy and security matters were washed aside. They were not part of the political discourse of the last three months.

The public fatigue of the election campaigns manifested itself in showing apathy to the most urgent problems facing Israel in the Middle East and the international arena.

Israel showed little interest in the deadlocked negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, in the troubling expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, or in the fragile and tense relations with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Even the covert war between Israel and Iran, which over the last two years took the unexpected shape of mutual maritime attacks, has been shoved under the carpet.

It was reported by The Wall Street Journal, most probably leaked by Mossad sources, that Israeli naval commandos damaged tankers sailing in the Gulf and the Mediterranean, which were carrying Iranian oil to Syrian ports in violation of international sanctions.

Israeli sources revealed that at least a dozen strikes of this kind occurred since 2019. In response, Iran’s naval and commando forces of the Revolutionary Guard targeted ships owned by Israeli companies. Two incidents attributed to Iran were registered.

Even the normalisation agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, signed with a strong tailwind from the outgoing Trump administration, didn’t persuade the Israeli public that peace is a gateway to historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

Yet, despite the apathy and aversion, Israel cannot avoid and run away from its foreign and security destiny.

The Palestinians are waiting for their own elections, with a hope, though very slim, that a PA-Hamas reconciliation will follow suit and challenge the Israeli occupying forces.

The Palestinians are also hopeful that the newly elected US administration, with its human rights agenda, will address their predicament and challenge Israel. Indeed, Joe Biden’s administration said on Thursday that it would donate $15m to assist Palestine’s health services, which are struggling in the pandemic.

In announcing it, the US reversed the previous policy of Donald Trump, who stopped all financial assistance to Palestine.

Iran, too, is going to have elections in June, which will determine the course of its relations with the US. Any agreement between Tehran and Washington to resolve the deteriorating nuclear deal will have major ramifications on Israel.

If the US and Iran agree to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, with or without amendments, and if the sanctions are lifted, Netanyahu will be on the losing side.

Producing dividends

Regardless, the inconclusive Israeli elections have already produced some dividends for the supporters of an Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

After years of bashing Palestinian citizens of Israel as “traitors” and “terrorists”, Netanyahu, due to his political desperation, has now been making inroads to appease and even flatter them.

The two Palestinian-Israeli lists consist of Ra’am, an Islamist movement that finds common ground with Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, and an alignment of liberal-national-communist groups in the Joint List.

Netanyahu and his unscrupulous supporters are ready to embrace and financially assist the former, if they serve his needs, courting Ra’am’s support after previously encouraging it to split from the Joint List to suppress the Palestinian vote.

So, out of the blue, Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas turned into Israel’s kingmaker.

Abbas, ironically, can decide whether Netanyahu will remain prime minister after 12 continuous years in power, or be sent to the opposition, or face a fifth round of elections.

Abbas has repeatedly said that he wants his Palestinian brethren, who make up 20 percent of the population, to be part of Israeli society.

Thus, a positive outcome may already be in the making. The sudden readiness of the Israeli right to work with Palestinian citizens of Israel will have its impact on future relations with the PA and even Hamas.

For years, Palestinian citizens of Israel were perceived as a potential bridge to bring together Jewish Israelis and their Palestinian and Arab neighbours. This time, it may work out.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon