Will the planned Palestinian elections go ahead?
Apr 23, 2021 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
There are increasing signs that the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for May 22 – to be followed by presidential elections in July – will be postponed or cancelled. An advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas just said the elections are “very likely” to be postponed, while Israeli TV is reporting other PA officials saying that postponement is 90% likely. This Update looks at why postponement is looking increasingly probable, and what might happen if the election does or does not go ahead.
We lead with Arab affairs reporter Daniel Siryoti from the newspaper Israel Hayom, who argues Palestinian-Israeli disputes over voting in east Jerusalem may actually be quite convenient. He says it looks like Abbas has been backed into a corner by his election plans, facing grim results for his Fatah party, and under pressure from both Egypt and Jordan not to go ahead with the election. Therefore, Siryoti suggests, using the east Jerusalem issue as a pretext to blame Israel for a postponement may be an obvious way out – and Israel may not object because Jerusalem is also worried about major Hamas gains if the election goes ahead. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up, security reporter Yaakov Lappin interviews Michael Milshtein, now at Tel Aviv University but previously one of the IDF’s top experts on Palestinian politics, about the Palestinian elections. Milshtein says the control of the West Bank by Abbas’ ruling Fatah party looks seriously under threat, not least because the party has splintered into three separate lists. He also discusses what might have led Abbas to call the elections after 15 years without one, and what Israel’s policy should be toward them. For the insights of this top expert, CLICK HERE. Milshtein also penned a piece on the dangers to Abbas if the election goes ahead, available here.
Finally, we offer a piece that contrasts the difficulties in Palestinian democratic politics for Mahmoud Abbas with the success story of Mansour Abbas, the Israeli Arab politician who came out of the March 23 Israeli election as something of a kingmaker. Written by Israeli pundit and author Dan Diker together with top Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh, the piece notes that Mansour Abbas’ success represents a new paradigm of engagement with Israel, while the Palestinian election campaign is stuck in a rut of hard-line messaging and rejections of peace and coexistence. Diker and Abu Toameh suggest that Mansour Abbas’ model of effective normalisation with Israel reflects a larger regional trend exemplified by the Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states, and that ultimately, the Palestinian leadership may have to follow suit as well. For this important analysis putting the Palestinian election in a broader context, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- A look at the Palestinian elections from the perspective of direct involvement in policymaking during the Palestinian elections of 2006 comes from Elliott Abrams, former senior US official now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
- Washington Institute counter-terrorism experts Matthew Levitt and Katherine Bauer analyse the Hamas electoral list – which contains numerous convicted terrorists – as well as the list’s implications for US-Palestinian ties.
- Palestinian Media Watch points out that the logos of most of the main parties competing in the Palestinian election contain maps of “Palestine” that replace all of Israel.
- Amidst much misinformation, a clarification of what actually happened when a missile from Syria struck Israel near the nuclear reactor at Dimona earlier this week.
- A policy brief from the US think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies about the disappointing recent decision of New Zealand’s Sovereign Wealth Fund to divest from Israeli banks.
- Women’s rights activists are condemning Iran’s election to the UN Women’s Rights Commission on Tuesday.
- Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was imprisoned In Iran on trumped-up charges for more than two years, writes about “The heroes I met fighting Iran’s brutal prison system.”
- AIJAC’s Jeremy Jones memorialised the interfaith achievements of the late Australian Catholic leader Cardinal Edward Cassidy, in a piece in the Australian.
It’s lucky the Palestinians have Israel to blame
By Daniel Siryoti
PA President Mahmoud Abbas finds himself backed into a corner and under pressure from both Egypt and Jordan. The easiest way out would be to cancel the elections, painting Israel as the guilty party.
Israel Hayom, April 21
The Palestinian Central Election Committee, shown above, is making requests with respect to east Jerusalem that are likely to be turned down by Israel – providing a potential pretext for cancelling the election, while pointing the finger at Israel as the reason (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Shutterstock.com)
There is still no clear answer to the question about whether the Palestinians will be holding legislative elections. Still, more and more people are starting to think that in light of the fracture in the Fatah movement – which has split into three different parties, in contrast to the unified Hamas list, which also has the support of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, whose own representatives decided to boycott the elections – and the polls that paint a grim picture for Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas, both in the legislative and presidential elections, Abbas might tell the international community that there is no point in holding elections at all if Israel will not allow them to take place in east Jerusalem and is preventing east Jerusalem residents from taking part in the PA’s celebration of democracy.
It’s no coincidence that high-ranking PA officials like Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki have starting pointing the finger as Israel as the entity doing everything to torpedo the PA elections though various bans. These alleged measures start with Israel rejecting the PA Central Elections Commission’s request to set up polls in east Jerusalem and include Palestinian claims that Israel has informed European election monitors that it will bar them from accessing the PA because of COVID travel restrictions.
Plenty of PA officials are willingly admitting that cancelling the scheduled elections and blaming it on Israel offers Abbas an ideal way out of the corner into which he has backed himself and a way to continue ruling with an iron fist like he has for 15 years, all the while firing barbs of criticism at Israel.
However, in closed talks those same officials say that the situation is actually much more complicated and that Israel’s denial of the PA election commission’s request is a lifeline for Abbas.
It’s not only Israel that is worried about a sweeping Hamas win. Recently, there have been more reports from Ramallah about visits by high-ranking delegations representing the Egyptian and Jordanian intelligence and security apparatuses, who are pressuring Abbas to take steps to cancel the election.
This pressure from Jordanian and Egyptian security officials who are worried about Hamas gaining power in the PA, as well as US President Joe Biden and his administration’s pointed lack of interest in the PA elections, as well as their failure to be impressed by Abbas’ democratic gesture, will also be a catalyst for Abbas to announce that despite “the Palestinians’ determination to hold elections,” there can be no point to them when Israel prevents Palestinians in east Jerusalem from exercising their right to vote.
Still, it’s lucky the Palestinians have Israel to blame and a way of avoiding responsibility.
Daniel Siryoti is Israel Hayom’s Arab and Middle Eastern affairs correspondent.
Palestinian elections could jeopardize Fatah’s rule in the West Bank
By Yaakov Lappin
The threat to Fatah’s rule posed by elections is also clear to senior Fatah and Palestinian Authority members, says Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University, and if they go to elections in this form, there’s a high chance that Fatah will crash.
JNS.org, April 14, 2021
Logos of the three different splinter groups from the once-dominant Fatah party running in the Palestinian legislative elections scheduled for May 22.
Should Palestinian elections go ahead in the territories, Fatah’s rule in the West Bank could be significantly jeopardized, an Israeli expert on the Palestinian arena has warned.
Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that the threat is clear not only to Israeli or American observers, but also to senior members of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
“A quick look at Fatah is sufficient to understand the scope of the danger and the chances of returning to the events of 2006 to 2007,” he said, when Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, before overthrowing Fatah in a violent coup in the Gaza Strip.”
Until 2018, Milshtein served as an adviser on Palestinian affairs in COGAT (the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and was previously also head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence.
Fatah claimed that it had learned the lessons of 2006 and 2007, and promised that it would not repeat those mistakes, he noted, but those pledges don’t seem to be reflected in recent actions that have taken Palestinians on the path to new elections under deeply problematic circumstances.
“There is a very deep split in the movement—three central party lists have formed,” said Milshtein. One list is led by the longtime P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas, now 85; a second by imprisoned senior Fatah terrorist Marwan Barghouti, 61, who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for deadly terror attacks, together with Abbas opposition figure Nasser Al-Qidwa, who is in his late 60s; and a third is led by the youngest of the lot, United Arab Emirates-based Muhammad Dahlan, 59. who was ousted by Abbas from Fatah’s official ranks.
These candidates are running alongside “independent lists affiliated with Fatah, the most prominent of which is the list [former P.A. Prime Minister] Salam Fayad. The movement suffers from a highly negative public image in the West Bank and in Gaza. There is total ambiguity regarding its strategy and conceptual doctrine, and the general sense is that there is no leadership guiding the movement,” said Milshtein.
Israeli expert on Palestinian Affairs Michael Milshtein (Photo: Twitter)
On the other side of the coin is Hamas, with internal cohesion and a party list that has some notables, named by Milshtein as including the former head of its internal security force Tawfiq Abu Naim, in his late 50s or early 60s; founding Hamas member Nizar Awadallah, in his early 50s; and senior Gazan Hamas official Khalil Al-Hayya, 60.
“If they go in this form to elections, there is a very high chance that Fatah will crash, which could mean that the Hamas precedent in Gaza would repeat itself in the West Bank, too. In a less pessimistic scenario, there is the possibility that Abbas will delay the elections, but the price of this maneuver could be public protests and a violent friction with Hamas,” said Milshtein. He recalled the “Algerian model”—a reference to the 1991 decision by the Algerian military to cancel the elections due to a victory by the Islamists, leading to the eruption of a bloody civil war.
What is causing Abbas to jeopardize his movement?
In a recent interview given to Israel’s Kan 11 news channel, outgoing Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun warned that Israel would cease its critical security coordination with the P.A. in the event that Hamas won the elections.
Rukun said that his warning had been passed on to P.A. decision-makers and that they were aware of the risk.
Asked what the possible scenarios are following a potential Hamas victory, Milshtein explained that in addition to the Algeria scenario, Abbas could alternatively decide that he “accepts the will of the people,” and as he did in 2006, “simply begin transferring government authority in a tangible manner to Hamas’s hands. If there won’t be someone in Fatah who stops him, the significance could be that Hamas begins consolidating its grip on power institutions, and afterwards, on security forces in the West Bank.”
Already, Hamas has clarified that this is an option it is seriously considering, he said.
“This is mainly because the movement understands that Israel will not allow a Hamas government to exist in Judea and Samaria,” according to Milshtein. “The solution could be a joint government that would ‘protect’ Hamas. This would let Hamas integrate into the government in Judea and Samaria without being at its forefront and risking a head-on clash with Israel.”
Many Palestinians as well as Israeli analysts are attempting to understand what is causing Abbas to jeopardize his rule and movement in this manner. “It seems that all of the answers are focused in the hands of one person, Abbas, who decided alone on the project and promoted it,” said Milshtein. “As in many events throughout his life, the strategic path is filled with mistakes, mishaps, a lack of clarity, a gap between the objectives he sought and what occurred in reality, and more.”
Milshtein assessed that Abbas placed the elections on the table as a means to gain the attention of the new Biden administration and focus it on the Palestinian arena and probably never meant to implement the elections in actuality.
“The move was designed to demonstrate an apparent positive front—someone who is promoting democracy—and to threaten Israel with the possibility of strategic upheavals,” he argued. “Abbas also wanted to be portrayed inside the Palestinian arena as someone who seeks to promote a deep internal fresh change out of the assumption that Hamas would be the one that would place conditions, and then he could accuse Hamas of being the ones who blocking the elections.”
He added in that regard, “Abbas was surprised when Hamas played along and agreed to all of his demands, thereby accelerating the elections process.”
All of this, said Milshtein, has led the Palestinian system to a process that Abbas and his circle—mainly, his close confidant and senior P.A. official, Hussein Al-Sheikh, and Majid Farah, head of the P.A.’s General Intelligence Service—are not interest in “since they understand how much strategic damage can be caused and the extent to which the P.A. is unready for such a test.”
‘Important to promote public messaging’
The more that time passes, the harder it is to exit the elections process, he cautioned, since public expectations are growing, and there is rising preparations on the Palestinian street, as well as external pressure by the European Union and the United Nations for the process to go ahead.
“Palestinian public expectations are growing”: A Palestinian electoral worker in Gaza (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib / Shutterstock.com)
“We haven’t yet reached the point of no return, but it is getting increasingly difficult from one day to the next, and Abbas would have to pay a price,” he said, for ditching the elections.
One ladder that Abbas could use to climb down from his predicament is to accuse Israel of refusing to allow the elections to occur in eastern Jerusalem, though Hamas is already preparing options for eastern Jerusalem Palestinians to vote outside of the city.
In the coming days, if Abbas declares that he is delaying or suspending elections, the result would likely be some international condemnation, a severe crisis with Hamas, and most likely, public protests. If he cancels them closer to May 22—the date of the Legislative Council votes—“all of the prices could be much higher, to the point of undermining the P.A.’s rule,” said Milshtein.
Israel, for its part, should maintain public silence on the manner, he said, while working with all of the elements that have a shared interest in canceling the elections: The U.S. administration, Egypt and Jordan.
Cairo has a singular ability to pressure Abbas. There are also senior P.A. officials who could help call off the elections, while Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is deeply hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood (to which Hamas belongs) could be recruited to help Abbas exit the trap through the help of civilian assistance packages, offered Milshtein.
“It is very important to promote public messaging to the Arab, Palestinian and Western arenas, explaining that the principles of democratization are vital, but that under the current circumstances, strategic damage could be caused,” he said, “as well harm to the fabric of life of Palestinians, as occurred in the reality that unfolded in Gaza after 2006.”
Mansour Abbas, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Abraham Effect
Dan Diker and Khaled Abu Toameh
Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs
Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Vol. 21, No. 5
April 21, 2021
Israeli Arab politician Mansour Abbas (L) came out of the Israeli election a kingmaker; PA President Mahmoud Abbas (R) is likely to get a much less happy result if Palestinian elections go ahead (Credits: Mansour Abbas photo – the Knesset; Mahmoud Abbas photo- Wikimedia Commons | License details)
- Mansour Abbas, 46, an Israeli Arab dentist and chairman of the Southern Branch of the Islamist Movement in Israel, secured four seats in Israel’s March 2021 Knesset elections for his Ra’am party on a platform of cooperation, integration, and normalization, in order to advance the socio-economic agenda of Israel’s Arab population – breaking with decades of Arab nationalist and Islamist rejectionist rhetoric against Israel. Mansour Abbas’ success has positioned him as a prospective kingmaker in determining Israel’s governing coalition.
- This was not a short-term tactical move. In 2020, Abbas had publicly signaled his openness to work with Zionist coalitions. Abbas’ unilateral reset reflects the spirit of the Abraham Accords, creating an internal “Abraham Effect” on Israeli Arab politics.
- On April 1, 2021, Abbas delivered a prime-time television address in Hebrew, reflecting an unprecedented outreach by an Arab politician to the Israeli Jewish public. He said that he would “courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership, and tolerance between people.” Abbas’ campaign avoided incendiary statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that had characterized the Israeli Arab political leadership’s rhetoric for decades.
- Yet, some in Israel were concerned that he was employing a recognized strategy of political Islam to penetrate a state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals, comparing him to Turkish President Erdogan, Hamas in Gaza, and Iran’s Hizbullah in Lebanon.
- Israel’s Arab citizens have increasingly sought economic and political integration, with 63% supporting Arab parties joining the Israeli coalition government. Ra’am’s electoral success reflects a societal shift in the Israeli Arab sector. Two polls in early 2020 indicated a growing Israeli identity as opposed to a Palestinian identity that had more commonly characterized Arab citizens of Israel.
- While Israel’s Abbas and his Ra’am party have exhibited signs of political adaptiveness to the democratic demands of a broadening Arab constituency in Israel, Mahmoud Abbas and the ideologically immutable Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank demonstrate intractability and continued hard-line, anti-Israel messages, further isolating themselves from the Palestinian public, the Arab world, and the Israeli people. At present, there does not seem to be a West Bank equivalent of Mansour Abbas running for the Palestinian Authority leadership.
Israel’s March 2021 parliamentary elections and those scheduled for the Palestinian Authority on May 22, 2021, in the West Bank have focused international attention on two Arab leaders; Mansour Abbas, leader of Israel’s United Arab List faction (Ra’am), and Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and Chairman of its ideological “parent,” the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Although Mansour Abbas and Mahmoud Abbas share the same family name, they are unrelated. They also diverge in their approaches to their local constituencies, Israel, and the Middle East. Dr. Mansour Abbas, a 46-year-old dentist from northern Israel and Chairman of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s Ra’am party, scored a dramatic electoral victory in securing four seats in Israel’s March 2021 Knesset elections on a platform of cooperation, integration, and normalization, breaking with decades of Arab party nationalist and Islamist rejectionist rhetoric against Israel. Instead, Mansour Abbas publicly declared readiness to join an Israeli right-wing coalition headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. In contrast, his Palestinian namesake, Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, the longtime leader of the PLO, Fatah, and chairman of the Palestinian Authority running for reelection in May 2021 after 16 years of a four-year term, is still campaigning with the hard-line, anti-Israel anti normalization messages that have characterized his Fatah party for decades.
Israel’s Internal “Abraham Accords?”
Mansour Abbas’s success has positioned him as a prospective kingmaker in determining Israel’s governing coalition. Shelving nationalist and Palestinian slogans, Mansour Abbas, while a devout Muslim representing an Islamic party, has pursued a pragmatic political path to electoral success, advancing the socio-economic agenda of Israel’s Arab population. This was not a short-term tactical move. During 2020, Abbas had publicly signaled his openness to work with conservative Zionist coalitions, including cooperating with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had aggressively courted Abbas and the Israeli Arab sector. Mansour Abbas’ unilateral reset mirrors the spirit of the Abraham Accords and creates an internal “Abraham Effect” on Israeli Arab politics. Abbas appears to have moved Arab politics from years of political and ideological rejectionism and inflammatory rhetoric against Israel. Instead, Abbas has chosen a pragmatic, issue-oriented approach to tackle pressing security, social, and economic challenges within Israel’s Arab communities.1
The Political Context and Complexity of the “Ra’am Phenomenon”
Abbas’ prime-time television Hebrew address2 on April 1, 2021, reflected an unprecedented outreach by an Arab politician to the Israeli public, particularly the political right. Abbas said that he would “courageously champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership and tolerance between the peoples.”3
Abbas’ move was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Several months earlier, in a December 2020 interview, Abbas said, “Our failure is due to lack of self-criticism.”4 Abbas also noted the urgency of addressing economic and social crises in the Arab sector that required political pragmatism to solve. Abbas’ campaign avoided incendiary default statements on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – that had characterized the Israeli Arab political leadership’s rhetoric for decades, including the recent April 2021 swearing-in of Knesset members. Instead of pledging allegiance to Israel, Arab Joint List faction Knesset members used the platform to condemn Israel as an “apartheid, racist, occupation state.”5
Mansour Abbas has been happy to speak to Israel’s Jewish majority on Israeli TV, promising to “champion a vision of peace, mutual security, partnership, and tolerance between people.” (Photo: i24 screen grab).
Abbas’s successful campaign responded to growing frustration in the Israeli Arab community. Since 2007, the Israeli Arab middle class has grown significantly.6 Israel’s nearly two million Arab citizens have increasingly sought economic and political integration, with 63 percent of Israeli Arabs supporting Arab parties joining an Israeli coalition government.7 Ra’am’s emphasis on grassroots, day-to-day issues attracted a broad and varied voter base despite the faction’s Islamic brand. Ra’am succeeded in attracting a wide electoral base, including young people, Christians, secular Muslims, and Bedouins who voted for their pragmatic solution-oriented approach over Islamist and nationalist sloganeering. Israeli Arab political analyst and activist Joseph Haddad noted8 that Mansour Abbas positioned Ra’am as the Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas party of Israeli Arab politics.9
Abbas’ new approach surprised Israel’s political class, triggering a debate among commentators regarding his intentions, motivations, and goals: Was he communicating a sincere desire for Israeli-Arab integration, or was he employing a recognized strategy of political Islam based on penetrating a sovereign state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals?10 Some viewed Abbas’ outreach with trepidation, comparing Abbas’ political approach to power to Turkish President Erdogan, the Hamas leadership in Gaza, and Iran’s Hizbullah in Lebanon.11
Some have argued that Ra’am and its fellow Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel’s more moderate approach compared to the militant and radical Northern Islamic Movement still threatens Israel’s Jewish majority character.12 Some of Abbas’ Arabic language post-election references to fellow Arab leaders seemed to confirm these suspicions.13 However, notably, his rhetoric and overall public declarations have avoided “hot button” issues such as Islam, the Palestinians, Jerusalem, Hamas, “apartheid,” and occupation, unlike Arab Joint Party List leaders such as Dr. Ahmad Tibi, Azmi Bashara, Hanin Zoabi, and Ayman Odeh – all of whom known for their diatribes against Israel.
Abbas had also developed friendly working relationships with senior Likud members, including Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, who had partnered with Abbas to counter violent organized crime in the Israeli Arab sector, a key agenda item for Abbas’ constituency.14 Levin had also reached out to Muslim members of the Knesset when in 2020, he blessed them in fluent Arabic in honor of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday in an unprecedented move.15
Shifts in the Israeli Arab Body Politic
Ra’am’s electoral success reflects a broader-based societal shift in the Israeli Arab sector.16 Two polls in early 2020 indicated a growing Israeli-Arab identity as opposed to a Palestinian-Arab identity that had more commonly characterized Arab citizens of Israel.17
In parallel, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic emphasized the equality between Jews and non-Jewish citizens. Media coverage of close cooperation between Jewish and Arab medical caregivers created a sense of unity during a national crisis. Additionally, Israeli Arabs were vaccinated months ahead of other Arabs in the Middle East, including Palestinians under PA governmental authority.18
The shift to issue-oriented Arab politics had picked up momentum over the past six years. President Reuven Rivlin had also proposed a “shared society” program in 2015 to help bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs.19 In 2015, the Knesset passed an unprecedented social and economic investment plan for the Arab sector in Resolution 922, earmarking ILS 10 billion to train teachers, build water and sewage pipes, renovate public buildings, and subsidize employment. Although the plan generated high expectations, robust budgets prompted organized crime groups to take over development projects.20
In recent years, the Arab public’s priorities have changed. They have placed the Palestinian issue lower on their agenda,21 prioritizing their own needs, such as fighting violent crime, employment discrimination, and allocating budgets for local infrastructure, health, and education.22
Since 2010, organized crime has risen sharply in the Arab community. In 2019 alone, 15 Israeli Arab mayors and their families were targeted by gunfire, Molotov cocktails, and car bombs by crime families vying for control. In 2020, there were 96 homicides in the Israeli Arab sector, an all-time high.23
In response, Arab MKs proposed an ILS 5 billion anti-violence legislation. The program included stiff penalties for illegal weapons possession, additional police stations, proposals for protecting the integrity of public bidding for projects, scholarships for Arab students, more Arab police officers, and encouraging young Arab citizens to perform National Service.
However, Israel’s ongoing parliamentary crises in 2019-2020 stalled the Arab development plan. Abbas filled the political vacuum, reiterated its urgency, and recalculated his political approach.24
Arab disenchantment with its Knesset leadership also increased Arab public support for Zionist parties. Notably, the nationalist Likud faction won more votes in the Arab sector in the 2021 elections than the left-wing Meretz and Labor factions combined (21,403 opposed to 21,714 for Likud).25
The growing support for Likud and other Zionist parties in the Arab sector did not occur in a vacuum. Abbas had developed friendships with several Knesset members from the right-wing Likud and Israel Beitenu parties, with whom he regularly conversed in Arabic.26 Abbas even expressed appreciation to hawkish nationalist transportation minister Bezalel Smotrich, who had helped Abbas solve longstanding traffic infrastructure problems near two large Israeli Arab towns in Northern Israel. Abbas, who served as Deputy Speaker of the Knesset under Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, noted right-wing Knesset members’ readiness to solve Israeli Arab issues, which served as an impetus for Abbas to respond in kind to their outreach.27
Rahat mayor and Abbas ally, Faiz Abu Sehban, noted that Ra’am’s readiness to align with the political right in Israel reflects its conservative values similar to those of Jewish ultra-religious parties, as opposed to the liberal, progressive agenda that defines the Israeli political left.28
Abraham Accords’ “Ripple Effect”?
The Arab world’s growing normalization of relations with Israel via the Abraham Accords has helped foster a more open environment both in the region and Israel to encourage Arab-Israeli relations. The Abraham Accords have provided new opportunities for Israeli Arabs through business and trade with their Arab counterparts. The UAE launched a $10 billion technology fund for investment in Israel,29 and Israeli Arabs have increased their participation in the high-tech sector. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, an architect of the Abraham Accords, initiated a program in Nazareth to advance Israeli Arab high-tech entrepreneurs.30
West Bank Palestinians, aware of the Abraham Accords’ positive effect on economic and political relations, have grown increasingly disillusioned with PA Chairman (Ra’is) Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO leadership.31 While Israeli Arabs and Jews explore new opportunities with Bahrain and the UAE, Palestinians find themselves wedged in by Mahmoud Abbas’ hard-line anti-normalization platform. As the authors noted in their November 2020 policy brief, the Palestinian leadership has radicalized and isolated itself from Israel, much of the Arab world, and even the Palestinian public.32
Khaled Abu Toameh noted that the 2021 Palestinian general elections – if held – feature Mahmoud Abbas’ hard-line campaign messages which reject peace and normalization with Israel. The radical PLO faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Islamist Hamas movement are still dedicated to destroying Israel and “liberating Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”33 PA leadership still preaches boycotts to the detriment of its citizens and continues to pay families of “martyrs,” referring to Palestinians who carried out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.34 Notably, Marwan Barghouti, incarcerated in Israel since 2004 and serving five life terms for planning and executing deadly terror attacks that killed four Israelis and a Christian cleric, is a leading candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas.35
The flag of Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party – which still preaches hardline message rejecting peace and normalisation with Israel (Photo: Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock.com)
As normalization progresses between Israel and the Arab world, including Sudan and Morocco, Mahmoud Abbas’ promotion of BDS policies and his outreach to terror-supporting regimes, such as Turkey and Iran, only isolate the Palestinians more among critical Arab countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Moreover, Mahmoud Abbas’ misguided policies have dealt a blow to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, setting back normalization prospects.36 Abu Toameh points out that, “It seems that Palestinians who support terrorism and do not accept the two-state solution are headed toward dominating the next Palestinian parliament and government.”37
The PA’s anti-Israel policies, particularly its boycott of the $50-billion investment program as part of the Abraham Accords 2019 economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain, contrasted sharply with Arab normalization with Israel and growing Israeli-Arab normalization within Israeli politics.
PA policies of radicalization and self-isolation have not been lost on the Palestinian public. The PA security’s arrest, detention, and mistreatment of Palestinian participants at Bahrain’s 2019 “Peace to Prosperity” workshop prompted defiant responses by some in the Palestinian private sector. “We are being pursued and threatened,” complained a Palestinian businessman. “All of us are in a precarious position. Why is it that people working on advancing peace and building a better future receive this type of treatment?”38
Despite the Palestinian leadership’s radical policies, the “Abraham Effect” on the Israeli Arab community and the Abraham Accords between Arab states and Israel have established precedents and pathways for Palestinian normalization with Israel. While largely unnoticed in Western policy circles, Palestinian Israeli normalization and economic cooperation have taken root. Since 2005, normalization between Palestinians and Israelis in Area C of the West Bank has flourished in 15 industrial and commercial zones, providing a career path to some 40,000 West Bank Palestinians who work together with Israelis under identical conditions and receive the benefits and protections of Israeli labor and social security laws.
The Barkan Industrial Park near Ariel in the West Bank, employing both Israelis and Palestinians. (Image: Google Earth)
The Area C industrial and commercial zone economic program represents a proven, sustainable, and productive model for economic, social, and political normalization between Israelis and Palestinians.39 This bottom-up economic normalization approach is a necessary precondition to top-down political agreements. Many Palestinian employees in these zones hold senior and managerial positions in Israeli companies and factories, where they are offered equality of opportunity and full economic normalization close to home.
The PA’s Mahmoud Abbas, on the Other Hand
Israel’s Mansour Abbas’ positive politics of normalization and integration contain lessons for Palestinian leadership and discourse. However, it appears at present that the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas remains stuck in the past. Young West Bank Palestinians have expressed dissatisfaction with the 86-year-old Abbas and Fatah’s intransigent and ineffective politics and called on him to resign, as reflected in a late 2020 Palestinian poll.40
Some moderate Palestinian leaders think creatively and can offer the Palestinian public a positive vision and a pragmatic approach to a better future. Presently, this seems an unlikely scenario given the PA’s poor democratic track record.
Potential moderate and pragmatic candidates remain primarily silent in Palestinian politics. Those who have attempted to change the Palestinian discourse have been shunned by their own families, while their economic wellbeing and even their lives have been threatened. The Palestinian leadership and its loyalists do not tolerate public criticism or effective opposition. While Israel’s Abbas and his Ra’am party have exhibited signs of political adaptiveness to the democratic demands of a broadening Arab constituency in Israel, the ideologically immutable PA leadership demonstrates intractability, further isolating itself from the Palestinian public, the Arab world, and the Israeli people. At present, there does not seem to be a West Bank equivalent of Mansour Abbas running for the Palestinian Authority leadership. However, Mansour Abbas’ influence may have opened a veritable Pandora’s box for the Palestinian leadership.
Regional and local political pressure may soon force PA politicians to follow the trend of normalization with Israel that today characterize Arab state relations with Israel, Israeli Arab relations within Israel, and increasingly, economic ties between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis.
* The authors thank Tirza Shorr for her research and editing contributions.
1 Rahat mayor Faiz Abu Sehban, a close associate of Mansour Abbas, who was influential in delivering tens of thousands of votes for Ra’am in the March 2021 election, told the author that Abbas’ new political approach, included reaching out to all coalitions – right, center or left – and turn the Arab factions into government coalition partners in budgetary decision making and distribution of resources, to help advance the Arab sector.
6 As of 2018, 22.6 percent of Israeli Arabs had middle class incomes up 15.9 percent in 2009. Moreover, since 2008, the share of Arab students at Israeli universities has doubled. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/behind-the-israeli-arab-political-revolution-a-growing-middle-class-1.9694008?lts=1618234449643
8 In a conversation with the author on April 11, 2021.
9 Shas, the Sephardic Haredi (ultra-orthodox) party, running on a social-economic platform, won 17 seats in the 1999 Knesset elections, winning massive support from non-religious voters due to their focus on socio-economic issues. Ra’am has been credited for making a similar move in the Arab sector.
10 See Mordechai Kedar, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/331143/ , Dr. Michael Milstein in https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 , and Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
11 Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
12 The Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel is considered more moderate and pragmatic than its counterpart, the radical Northern Islamic Movement, headed by the militant cleric Sheikh Raed Salah, closely associated with the Palestinian Hamas. https://www.timesofisrael.com/joint-list-4-arab-parties-on-1-slate-is-poles-apart-but-strong-together/
The Muslim Brotherhood has a longstanding political strategy of subversion of the nation-state by democratic integration into its political systems, as Hizbullah did in Lebanon. See Mordechai Kedar, https://www.makorrishon.co.il/opinion/331143/ , and Dr. Michael Milshtein in https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418, and Prof. Dan Shueftan in https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
13 In a post-election speech to Arab leaders, Mansour Abbas said: “We stand humbly before our nation and dear Arab Palestinian society that lived the Nakba and stuck to this land and maintained its identity. They conquered our hearts and the heart of the nation as a whole. Thanks to them Palestine didn’t remain just a memory. Our goal is to continue to strengthen this devotion, presence and strength until this select team, from the sons of the nation, will be the jewel in the crown of the Arabic Islamic nation. Dear brothers, it is about this society we speak and for which we work.” https://www.timesofisrael.com/raam-leader-said-to-face-internal-pushback-after-urging-political-cooperation/
14 Professor Dan Shueftan, chairman of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, points to the dissonance in the Arab sector, which creates a paradox: Israeli Arabs crave economic and at least partial, social integration into Israeli society, while at the same time, they consistently elect representatives who fundamentally negate the legitimacy of the Jewish State. https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-832666
18 Israeli vaccination of 105,000 West Bank Palestinian workers and Jerusalem’s Arab residents sent a clear signal about the stark contrast between the equality of Israeli society and the PA’s mismanagement of the crisis. Reports of the Palestinian Authority providing vaccinations to their own officials and other “VIPs” rather than their most vulnerable sectors of their population have also angered the Palestinian public. https://www.timesofisrael.com/pa-admits-some-1st-vaccines-went-to-government-officials-soccer-players-jordan/; https://twitter.com/cogatonline/status/1372640202477481989?s=20
19 In May 2015, addressing the leadership of the International Friends of Givat Haviva (The Center for a Shared Society), an event attended by Israeli Arab mayors and community leaders, Rivlin spoke of a shared civic destiny in which each group respects others’ cultures and narratives, forging a shared identity despite a pained history. Rivlin, proposed actions in several areas of cooperation, and suggested that Israeli schoolchildren be taught Arabic https://www.timesofisrael.com/rivlin-shared-jewish-arab-identity-key-to-israels-future/
20 https://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-five-year-economic-plan-for-israels-arab-sector-a-progress-report/ https://www.timesofisrael.com/arab-communities-shattered-as-organized-crime-fuels-record-levels-of-bloodshed/
21 https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 https://jcpa.org/defeating-denormalization/palestinian-authoritys-policy-denormalization/ ; https://jcpa.org/israelophobia-and-the-west/dueling-discourses-diaspora-demonization-versus-palestinian-pragmatism/
24 Jewish religious parties such as Shas have made similar moves in the past (in 1990, 2006, and 2013), agreeing to “change sides” for practical reasons. In the previous election of 2020, the Arab Joint List received 15 votes, and in the most recent election, it received only six.
25 https://www.maariv.co.il/journalists/Article-831418 The Likud list now includes an Israeli Arab school principal, Nail Zoabi.
28 In conversation with the author, April 11, 2021.
34 https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/pa-to-pay-three-months-pay-for-slay-salaries-to-terrorists-653688; https://jcpa.org/defeating-denormalization/palestinian-authoritys-policy-denormalization/