Even after the fourth election within two years, the political situation in Israel remains uncertain. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been entrusted with forming a government, a fifth election is by no means inconceivable given the political status quo. The Palestinians, meanwhile, face little change, albeit Joe Biden will try to make a difference.
Two weeks after the parliamentary elections in Israel, President Reuven Rivlin tasked Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a government on April 6.
The situation post-election is that neither Netanyahu’s camp nor his opponents possess a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. A Netanyahu-led, right-wing religious camp commands 52 seats; the opposing bloc – an illustrious mix of left, right, and Arab parties – hold 57.
Rivlin justified his decision by claiming Netanyahu would have slightly better chances to form a coalition than others. He also stated his choice was made harder by the corruption charges against Netanyahu.
The formation of a government remains hence uncertain even after the fourth parliamentary election within four years. Netanyahu now has four weeks to form a coalition and can ask for a two-week extension if needed.
In the latest developments, Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, a centrist political party, called for forming a broad coalition without Netanyahu on the evening of April 5. According to Lapid, Netanyahu had proven through his controversial statements and actions that he had become dangerous for the country.
“We are committed to bringing about the change we promised to the people of Israel. To prevent a government led by a criminal suspect and dependent on racists and extremists.”
“We are committed to bringing about the change we promised to the people of Israel. To prevent a government led by a criminal suspect and dependent on racists and extremists,” Lapid said in a televised statement, referring to Netanyahu and other religious, right-wing allies.
Lapid pushed for a government made up of officials from all political sides and offered Naftali Bennett, of the right-wing Yamina Party, to be part of a coalition that rotates the office of prime minister. He was ready to let Bennett go first.
However, whether this proposal can be a viable option after the failed rotation agreement between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz remains to be seen.
A potential kingmaker is currently Mansour Abbas of the Arab Ra’am Party, which, together with Yamina, could ultimately become part – at least in theory – of a Netanyahu-led coalition. Albeit Abbas already stated he does not “want to be a part of a bloc on the right or left.”
The fact that such an absurd constellation has become an possibility – in which a Netanyahu coalition would consist of ultra-Orthodox forces, the Religious Zionist Party, the far-right, and an Arab party – shows how broken Israeli politics and parliamentary landscape have become.
What Happens to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories?
Besides the question of the prime ministership, the Palestinians’ fate continues to raise questions. What was noticeable earlier in the election campaign was that the future of the Palestinians did not play a significant role either in the run-up to the elections or during the elections.
While the future of the Palestinians may still be an international focus, in Israel itself, the issue has faded in recent years, though it used to dominate election campaigns. The 20 percent Arab population in Israel, who identify with the Palestinians, does little to change this fact.
A promising development was the announcement of Palestinian elections between Hamas and the Fatah parties after 15 years of hostility. However, there have already been many prior attempts at reconciliation between the warring camps. It is, therefore, appropriate to be skeptical whether elections in Gaza and the West Bank will ultimately be held in May as scheduled and whether the Palestinians will get a chance to end President Mahmoud Abbas’ reign.
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The Focus Has Shifted
Besides the well-known dynamics, tectonic shifts have emerged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as in the entire region, precipitated by the Trump presidency.
The normalization agreements between Israel and Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan – which were facilitated during the Trump administration – have lifted the isolation of the Jewish state and broken the Palestinians’ veto power over Israel’s relations with the region. As a result, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has lost a lot of its significance.
Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his apparent disregard for Palestinian leadership has led to a political isolation of the Palestinians.
Moreover, Trump’s relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his apparent disregard for Palestinian leadership – paralyzed for many years in gerontocracy and division – has led to a political isolation of the Palestinians that has not been seen in decades.
In fact, the gap between the two societies involved in the conflict has increased disproportionately in the past three decades. On the one hand, there is the aspiring, economically and scientifically prosperous Israel, whose vaccination success became a shining example globally.
On the flip side is Palestinian society, living under a dehumanizing military occupation and, what some human rights group consider, a form of apartheid, dependent on fickle foreign financiers and threatened in the Trump years to become more and more a forgotten footnote in history.
Can Biden Make a Difference?
Joe Biden, the new US President, now seeks to make up for the Palestinians’ plight and is planning a reset in US-Palestinian ties. In contrast to Trump’s peace plan, the 1967 armistice line is once again intended to be the reference point for peace negotiations.
Financial aid to the Palestinian leadership and the UN relief agency UNWRA is to be resumed, as announced on April 7. As in the past, the Americans will urge the Israelis to stop building settlements in the occupied West Bank. Biden seeks to rebalance the Israeli-Palestinian relationship better, but without angering Tel Aviv.
Biden seeks to rebalance the Israeli-Palestinian relationship better, but without angering Tel Aviv.
How exactly the US is repositioning itself after Trump and what tone will prevail between Tel Aviv and Washington will only be seen after a government is formed in Israel. Moreover, a possible new-old Prime Minister Netanyahu could become a burden.
Netanyahu can claim that he got the most out of the era of Israel-friendly Trump. In doing so, however, he significantly offended the Democrats – and not for the first time.
There has been an ongoing, bipartisan, pro-Israel consensus in American politics over the past few decades. Now, it threatens to weaken the Democratic Party. In concert with shifts in American and especially younger Jewish American opinion, the left-wing of the Democrats, witnesses anti-Israel sentiments that are similar to those of leftist parties in Europe. It could amplify the pressure on Biden to be more critical of the Israelis and to stand up for the rights of the Palestinians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement that Palestinians should enjoy the same rights as Israelis could mark the beginning.
An Opportunity for Progress?
As controversial as it may appear, the shift in interests in the region could also be an opportunity for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is now just one of many in the region and is not the most important geopolitically.
In the past, among other things, it was the almost unconditional support of the Europeans that led the Palestinian leadership to perhaps overestimate its negotiating position. Yet, the down-grading of the conflict’s status now also presents new prospects. It could lead the Palestinians to be more realistic about what can be achieved in a two-state solution, assuming that is still possible considering the situation on the ground. At least in theory, an Israeli Prime Minister in office who is inclined to search for real compromise and solutions could open up a dialog.
Moreover, the detachment of Arab states from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that it is no longer as charged as it used to be and is less overlaid by external factors. One thing is clear: the cards are being reshuffled in the Middle East.
In the end, all will depend on who sets the tone in Israel going forward and as such it is a question that the latest Israeli election will not answer conclusively.