Palestinians stuck between rock and a hard place post-Israeli elections

Joint List potential kingmakers but risk jeopardising two-state solution by deciding to back a mainstream Israeli candidate for prime minister

Members of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, center, speaks to the press in the presence of Ahmad Tibi, right, and Mansour Abbas following their consulting meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. Rivlin began two days of crucial talks Sunday with party leaders before selecting his candidate for prime minister, after a deadlocked repeat election was set to make forming any new government a daunting task. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)
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No matter what happens in the Middle East, it seems Palestinians are always stuck between a rock and a hard place. The recent Israeli elections underscore this truism in all its tragic glory. In an unprecedented sequence of events, an alliance of four Palestinian parties known as the Joint List could be kingmakers in the next Israeli parliament. Yet the decisions they make as to whether they will support a mainstream Israeli candidate reflect desperation and could have a profound impact on the future of intra-Palestinian political dynamics.

It has been a turbulent few months in Israeli politics, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been clinging onto power while trying to steer clear of corruption charges. After Mr Netanyahu failed to form a government following April’s general election, when he failed to win a majority, Israelis went back to the polls last week. With the votes counted and coalition discussions under way, Mr Netanyahu’s primary challenger is the centre-right former military general Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party. Both were summonsed to meet Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday to discuss the possibility of a unity government. Mr Rivlin is expected to announce by Wednesday who will be given the first option of forming a government.

The Joint List, whose members range from religious to communist, won 13 seats in the election. Ten of the 13 lawmakers have endorsed Mr Gantz, but that still leaves him seven seats shy of the number needed for a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, while Mr Netanyahu has 55 endorsements. On Sunday, Joint List leader Aymen Odeh recommended Mr Gantz for the top job but ruled out joining a coalition. The three-member Balad faction has refused to back any candidates for prime minister. Not since Yitzhak Rabin’s support of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the early 1990s has a mainstream Israeli politician won the backing of major Palestinian political parties in the country.

The unusual decision reflects a desperation to remove Mr Netanyahu from office and a breathless attempt to reverse a slew of explicitly racist laws targeting Palestinians, who make up about 20 per cent of the Israeli population. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

The Joint List was formed in 2015 after right-wing lawmaker Avigdor Lieberman proposed legislation that raised the electoral threshold to 3.25 per cent to run for the 120-seat parliament. The decision forced smaller Palestinian parties to join forces, including Balad, a religious party, and Hadash, a Jewish-Palestinian communist party. The Joint List initially posted strong results before descending into a spiral of infighting and disunity.

Demographically, Palestinian citizens represent a formidable block of potential voters in the Israeli political system. However, they have failed to organise effectively. This is partly down to structural problems in terms of access to voting stations and outright voter intimidation.

TOPSHOT - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres, at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 19, 2019. / AFP / GIL COHEN-MAGEN
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) greets Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, at a memorial ceremony for late Israeli president Shimon Peres. AFP

Mr Netanyahu routinely used the prospect of “leftists” and Arabs voting in large numbers to fire up his base. At the same time, the Israeli government has passed several discriminatory laws aimed at the Palestinian community, including the nation-state law that explicitly undercuts Palestinian ties to the state.

Writing in the New York Times on Monday, Ayman Odeh outlined these problems to justify his support of a centrist Zionist politician.

“Last summer, Mr Netanyahu declared that Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up a fifth of the population, were to be second-class citizens, officially,” he wrote. “The Israeli government has done everything in its power to reject those of us who are Arab Palestinian citizens, but our influence has only grown. We will be the cornerstone of democracy.”

Yet how can one aspire for democracy in a fundamentally undemocratic country, with few concrete prospects for change? The Joint List is walking a fine line between concessions for its constituents and the long-term goals of the Palestinian people as a whole. Palestinian citizens of Israel face endemic discrimination and effectively live as second-class citizens. From the allocation of state resources to discriminatory laws concerning the purchase of land, Palestinians do not enjoy full civil rights on a par with other Israelis. Efforts to change this have failed, especially in recent years, as Israel has lurched further to the right. But it is clear that Palestinian citizens want to keep fighting for their rights within the system rather than devoting their efforts to unravelling the status quo.

How can one aspire for democracy in a fundamentally undemocratic country, with few concrete prospects for change?

This is music to the ears of Israeli propagandists and supporters. Pro-Israeli supporters around the world have used the presence of Palestinian citizens to embellish the credentials of Israel’s so-called democracy. If major Palestinian parties are able to win seats and support a mainstream Zionist candidate, then how can anyone say that Israel is an apartheid state, or so the PR line goes.

In addition to defending the rights of the Palestinians in Israel, the Joint List wants to keep the two-state solution alive as Israel focuses on the current one-state reality. But observers of all stripes have agreed that the prospects for a two-state solution at this stage are all but dead in the water.

Israel has used the past three decades of peace talks to entrench its occupation through continued settlement expansion and annexation. Israeli politicians would love nothing more than to perpetuate the notion of a peace pact to quell the qualms of the international community while the country renders any two-state solution impossible on the ground.

These issues will intensify as the complexion of the next coalition comes into sharper focus. It is understandable that the Joint List will try to win some vital concessions for its constituents but many Palestinians will be asking at what cost. For those souls living under occupation, that cost might be the very essence of the struggle itself.

Joseph Dana is the editor of emerge85, a project exploring change in the emerging world and its global impact