The role of Israeli and Palestinian politicians in latest violence

Analysts and diplomats say Israeli overreach and a self-serving Palestinian leadership brought the two sides to the brink of all-out war again

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed on Sunday to dissuade political opponents from forming a new coalition government with his rival and opposition leader Yair Lapid. AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed on Sunday to dissuade political opponents from forming a new coalition government with his rival and opposition leader Yair Lapid. AFP

Palestinians were supposed to be preparing to cast ballots in two weeks' time – their first elections in 15 years.

Instead, they are watching as their leaders in the Gaza Strip wage a rocket and air strike war with Israel and their president in the West Bank appears powerless to protect his people or stop the carnage.

As the situation descends into another bloody conflict, political analysts and western diplomats monitoring the region say that the blame lies with two players: an intransigent Israel after a nationalist far-right refused to co-operate with Israeli Palestinian politicians to form a government; and an ineffectual Palestinian leadership that has left its people frustrated and angry.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during an emergency meeting of the Fatah Central Committee and the PLO Executive Committee in the occupied West Bank City of Ramallah, on May 12, 2021. AFP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during an emergency meeting of the Fatah Central Committee and the PLO Executive Committee in the occupied West Bank City of Ramallah, on May 12, 2021. AFP

Besides this, a moribund international peace process is unable to get talks started, let alone make a breakthrough.

But the root cause, they say, is that leaders in Israel and Palestine thought they could circumvent the fury of Palestinians by striking outside deals with regional powers and laying the blame for the malaise on each other.

After decades of coexistence, albeit sometimes uneasy, Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel attacked each other in parts of the country in recent days.

Senior Israeli politicians warn of anarchy, civil war and remind their coreligionists of a history of Jewish suffering during the pogroms in Europe, further inflaming tensions.

“Now we see that there will be no real integration and no real coexistence, even in Israel, before the conflict is solved,” said Lidia Averbukh, research associate at the German Institute for Security and International Affairs.

In this leadership vacuum is Hamas and the other militant groups in Gaza, supported by Iran.

These groups drew heavy Israeli retaliation for firing rockets at Israel in response to an Israeli crackdown on Palestinians protesting against eviction orders in East Jerusalem.

While civilians bear the brunt of the violence, the fighting emboldens the hardliners on both sides.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the other militant group in Gaza with significant firepower, can paint themselves after seven decades as the only ones still willing to fight for the Palestinian cause.

Israeli officials can hold up the threat of Palestinian militancy, supported by Iran, to validate its blockade of Gaza, the setting up of checkpoints across the West Bank and the arrest and detention of thousands of Palestinians as part of its ongoing occupation.

Ms Averbukh said Israel’s “tactic of suppressing the conflict” and trying to sell the idea that peace with Palestine was not a precondition to relations with the region through the normalisation agreements with Middle East governments “did not pay off”.

“Popular anger is too powerful,” Ms Averbukh said. The postponement of Palestinian elections last month and Israeli overreach in East Jerusalem were both triggers of the explosion of pent-up Palestinian frustration, she said.

“The only way out of the conflict is to restart negotiations,” she said.

Peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel collapsed more than a decade ago.

The prospects for a two-state solution, as called for by United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1974, diminished with Israel’s political tilt to the right in successive elections.

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, encouraged a land grab of Palestinian territory and authorised more settlements, an approach boosted by the 2016 election of Donald Trump as US president.

Mr Trump unveiled last year a Middle East plan that most Palestinians considered an end to their hope of statehood.

It prompted Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction to declare an imminent end to the Palestinian schism after civil wars in 2006 and 2007 and a deal to hold elections.

Fatah and other potential anti-Hamas candidates suffered splits, and Hamas was widely considered likely to make powerful gains.

Soon after Joe Biden defeated Mr Trump in November 2020, Palestinian unity deals all but collapsed. Mr Abbas cancelled the elections last month, citing Israeli refusal to allow voting in Jerusalem.

More than 2.5 million Palestinians, constituting 93 per cent of eligible voters, had registered to vote.

Hassan Al Momani, a professor of international studies at Jordan University, said the election of Mr Biden “allowed Palestinian political powers to relax”.

But their hope that the new US president would focus on restarting the peace process was misplaced.

Mr Al Momani said Mr Biden’s priorities were ending the US presence in Afghanistan, returning to the 2015 nuclear accord with Iran and, to some degree, solving the conflict in Yemen and safeguarding the American position in Iraq.

“Biden was not in a hurry to tackle the Palestinian issue,” he said. “The US position became more active after this escalation.”

The US said it was sending senior State Department official Hady Amr to the region to try to calm the situation as the death toll mounted in Gaza and Israel.

But Mr Al Momani said the conflict was unlikely to abate in the short term as Israel tried to “inflict fatigue in Gaza and raise the cost” on the militants, who have “created a deterrence of sorts”.

Mr Netanyahu, facing a potential fifth election in two years and an ongoing corruption trial, may well gain from this fighting.

“When security is such a priority, the Israelis become more united. Netanyahu will try to use this politically,” Mr Al Momani said.

Mr Netanyahu’s loss of his main ally – Mr Trump – is unlikely to hold him back even as Israel’s political scene fragments further.

Israel has been in a political impasse since the most recent elections, in March, produced too many winners and the far right refused to form a government with the Arab religious Ra'am party, which made significant gains in the poll.

Centrist politician Yair Lapid was tasked with forming a government after Mr Netanyahu failed, but his chances of succeeding are seen as having been dealt a blow by the Jewish-Israeli Palestinian violence.

On Thursday an important ultranationalist party said it was abandoning talks with Mr Lapid, improving the chances of Mr Netanyahu returning as prime minister.

A European diplomat said that although Mr Netanyahu might not have expected his hardline policies to provoke such a strong Palestinian reaction, he is still poised to emerge as a main beneficiary from the war.

“All this plays into the hands of the man who knows how to run the security narrative best,” the diplomat said.

“Netanyahu is still profiting. He is managing to show how threatened Israel is.”

Updated: May 16, 2021 11:16 AM

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