Palestinian issues absent in Israeli election campaign

Israeli candidates are sidelining the the country's biggest concern

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 2, 2019 file photo, Israeli border police officers stand guard next to posters depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Ha'tikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. As Israel prepares to hold a national election next week, experts say it is vulnerable to the kind of foreign hacks and cyber campaigns that have disrupted the political process in other countries. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
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Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and talk of a peace deal have been notably absent from a charged election campaign that has been heavy on insults and short on substance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party has offered no plan for what many believe is the country's most pressing concern and its biggest failure.

His main challenger in the April 9 vote speaks vaguely of "separation", while Mr Netanyahu's hard-line partners ignore talk of a Palestinian state, the international community's preferred solution for the past two decades.

It is a far cry from past elections when peace with the Palestinians was the central issue for voters.

This apparent lack of interest reflects Israel’s increasingly hardline – and from some views, illegal – defence of its occupation of Palestine, despite the international community's condemnation.

"The Palestinian cause is totally absent in the Israeli elections, and when it comes, it comes only in a negative context," said Ahmed Majdalani, a senior Palestinian official. "This is worrisome because it tells us we are going from bad to worse."

Mr Netanyahu has further marginalised the Palestinian cause with unprecedented backing from the administration of US President Donald Trump – a far cry from previous administrations in Washington that sought a peace deal.

Mr Netanyahu took office in early 2009 and under heavy pressure from then president Barack Obama reluctantly stated his support for an independent Palestinian state.

Things quickly went downhill, as Mr Netanyahu failed to engage in constructive dialogue on Palestinian statehood and serious peace talks did not take place during Mr Obama's term.

The Trump administration has further sidelined the Palestinians by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, drawing widespread criticism for turning his back on years of US policy.

A long-promised peace plan, which the White House says will be released after the election, faces dim prospects and scepticism from Arabs, if it is even eventually released.

With the peace process frozen, it is no surprise that none of the major Israeli parties are talking about the Palestinians.

Before the election, several religious and nationalist parties, along with members of Netanyahu's Likud party, have openly called for annexing parts or all of the West Bank.

These plans include oppressive proposals for the Palestinians, including non-voting residency rights, possible citizenship or financial incentives to emigrate with no guarantees of equal treatment.

It remains unclear how hard these parties, all potential coalition partners for Mr Netanyahu, will push, although Mr Trump's recent recognition of Israel's annexation of the occupied Golan Heights has increased calls for annexing West Bank territory.

Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator, said the lack of interest on the Israeli side is harmful to the Palestinians in the short term but much worse for Israel in the long term.

"It means the end of the two-state solution," Mr Khatib said. "The alternative will be an apartheid system and this will cause huge damage to Israeli democracy and the image of Israel."

Yossi Beilin, one of the chief architects of Israel's historic 1993 interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, said Mr Netanyahu's policies were devastating for peace prospects.

But Mr Beilin remains confident that the two-state solution will one day be adopted because of a lack of alternatives.

He even believes that Mr Netanyahu's chief rival Benny Gantz, a former general, will definitely pursue a peace deal if elected.

And Mr Trump's peace plan, if released, may force Mr Netanyahu's hand, Mr Beilin said.

If elected, Mr Netanyahu will have a hard time resisting his close friend's proposal while his hard-line coalition partners oppose any concessions to the Palestinians.

"The impact of the plan might be very interesting," Mr Beilin said.