Rifts in the Palestinian coalition party in Israel have helped further the prime minister’s agenda, and may yet foil his corruption trial
For six years the Joint List had served as a beacon of political hope. Not just for the large Palestinian minority in Israel it represented, but also for a global Palestinian audience disillusioned by years of infighting between Fatah and Hamas that has sidelined the national cause.
But last week, the Joint List’s coalition of four Palestinian parties split asunder, weeks ahead of an Israeli general election that will focus on the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The List’s component parties, representing a fifth of the Israeli population, had found it impossible to set aside their long-running ideological and tactical differences.
The coalition that broke the mould of Palestinian politics has now broken apart itself, and, according to analysts, the toll is likely to be severe.
There are at least superficial parallels between the Joint List’s breakup and the ongoing hostility between Fatah and Hamas. On one side, three largely secular parties – Hadash, Taal and Balad – have remained in the List, while the fourth, the United Arab List (UAL), a conservative Islamic party led by Mansour Abbas, is going it alone.
Once again, Israeli actors have played a decisive role in manipulating internal Palestinian divisions. Netanyahu has been widely credited with offering incentives to encourage Abbas to quit the Joint List and form a rival political coalition, one bolstered by the support of popular local politicians.
The rupture in the Joint List, Netanyahu appears to hope, will change the electoral maths in the Israeli parliament and help him foil his corruption trial.
And as Awad Abdelfattah, a former secretary-general of Balad, observed to Middle East Eye, Israel’s four main Palestinian parties – like Fatah and Hamas in the occupied territories – have been unable to find a unifying vision of where Palestinian politics is heading next.
In an era when neither Washington, the Europeans or Arab states are showing the slightest interest in pushing for Palestinian statehood, the Joint List has found itself forced to concentrate on domestic issues. But those have proved far more divisive.
Victim of own success
The Joint List has in many ways been a victim of its own success.
It was born in early 2015 out of crisis. The Netanyahu government had passed legislation raising the electoral threshold specifically to prevent the four Palestinian parties in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, from winning seats individually.
Out of necessity, these very different factions, representing 1.8 million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, were forced to sit together.
Until the arrival of the List, voter turnout among Palestinian citizens had been in terminal decline. The minority had grown ever-more disenchanted with an Israeli political scene over which its elected representatives had zero influence.
The Joint List instantly reversed that trend.
In the 2015 election it became the third largest party, offering a greater political visibility to the Palestinian minority than ever before. And the List’s personable, conciliatory leader, Ayman Odeh, of the socialist Hadash party, was soon being feted abroad.
But the rapid growth of the Joint List – it won a record 15 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the last election a year ago – was also its undoing.
Netanyahu has spent the last two years desperately trying, and failing, to cobble together a decisive majority government after a series of inconclusive elections. His goal is to pass legislation to block his trial on multiple corruption charges. The Joint List’s sizeable bloc in the Knesset is one significant reason for why success has constantly eluded him.
Netanyahu’s initial instinct was to follow a well-trodden path: incite against the Palestinian minority and their representatives in the hope of dissuading them from voting. He questioned Palestinian citizens’ right to vote, implied that they were stealing the election, and declared that they belonged to a terrorist population. None of it worked.
Instead, Netanyahu inadvertently fired up the Palestinian minority to turn out in ever larger numbers, making it even harder for him to secure a Jewish majority.
Rise in crime
At the same time, however, Palestinians were not just voting against Netanyahu. As Asad Ghanem, a political scientist at Haifa University, noted to MEE, voters wanted the Joint List to use its increased size to elbow its way into an Israeli political arena that had always ignored the Palestinian parties.
Palestinian voters in Israel have highlighted two key, festering issues they expected action on.
One is the refusal by the Israeli authorities to designate public land to Palestinian communities or issue building permits. Both factors have led to massive overcrowding for Palestinian citizens and a plague of illegal building under threat of demolition.
And the other is a rapid growth in criminal gangs in Israel’s Palestinian towns and villages that were sucked into the void left by a mix of negligent and hostile policing. Shootings and murders have rocketed in Palestinian communities, stripping residents of any sense of personal security.
It was these pressures from their own voters that encouraged the Joint List to abandon its traditional unwillingness to get involved in the political horse-trading between the Jewish parties that follow each election, as the largest factions try to build a government.
After the election last year, the Joint List parties reluctantly backed Benny Gantz, the former military general who oversaw the destruction of Gaza in the 2014 war, because his Blue and White party was the best hope of ousting Netanyahu.
But Netanyahu had used the campaign to make the Joint List toxic for most Jewish voters. He once again incited against the Palestinian minority, arguing that Gantz would form a government by relying on “supporters of terror”, in reference to the List.
The Blue and White leader balked at the Joint List’s support and headed into a coalition with Netanyahu instead.
It is hard to underestimate the damage Gantz’s decision did to the List. Last week’s breakup is its most poisoned fruit – and Netanayhu’s big electoral achievement.
Gantz’s rebuff was especially a slap in the face to Odeh, the secular leader of the Joint List who had pushed the hardest for supporting a Blue and White government. His socialist Hadash party has always prized the idea of Arab-Jewish solidarity and cooperation.
Gantz’s rejection offered an opening to Netanyahu to change his approach to the List. He would now try to kill it through selective kindness.
He drew on his favourite policy to win over Palestinians, whether in Israel or the occupied territories: what he terms “economic peace”. The transactional idea is that he offers small economic incentives in return for political quiescence from Palestinians.
The Nazareth model
Netanyahu’s test bed in Israel for this old-style, patronage politics was Nazareth, where a new mayor, Ali Salam, was elected in 2014 – a break with decades of rule by the socialist Hadash party.
Salam was part of a new wave of populist politicians emerging around the world. Immediately following the US election of 2016, Salam credited himself with being a political mentor to Donald Trump, whom he never met.
Salam sidelined the Palestinian national cause, even rhetorically, and focused on a narrow agenda of cosying up to the Israeli government in the hope of winning favours for his city and prolonging his personal rule.
Netanyahu was keen to win a political ally in Nazareth, the effective capital of the Palestinian minority in Israel, and especially one as divisive as Salam. The two were soon flaunting a relationship of mutual convenience.
This, it seems, did not go unnoticed by Abbas, leader of the outgoing UAL party in the Joint List. After Gantz’s rebuff, Abbas began to replicate, on the national stage, the political alliance with Netanyahu fostered locally by Salam in Nazareth.
Odeh, the Joint List’s leader, had accepted the need to make an alliance with Gantz in the hope of gaining political influence, but was rejected.
Abbas pursued a similar logic. As Abdelfattah put it: “His view was, why can’t I do the same and make a deal with Netanyahu? As prime minister, Netanyahu is better placed to deliver than Gantz and needs support to avoid his corruption trial.”
Last October, Abbas revealed how this would work in practice. He used his powers as a deputy Knesset speaker to void a parliamentary vote that had approved a commission of inquiry into Netanyahu over highly damaging allegations in what is known as the “submarine affair”.
Netanyahu is suspected of profiting from a deal for German submarines in defiance of advice from the military. The “submarine affair” has been the main spark for more than a year of anti-Netanyahu protests across Israel.
Behind the scenes, it emerged, Abbas had been cultivating ties with Netanyahu and his advisers. He has repeatedly hinted that he may be willing to vote in favour of an immunity law that would scotch Netanyahu’s trial.
The key reason cited for the collapse of the Joint List negotiations last week was Abbas’ insistence to his coalition partners that they agree to impossible conditions before he would rule out recommending Netanyahu as prime minister.
In return, Netanyahu has built up Abbas as the man he can work with to staunch the crime wave and overcrowding in Palestinian communities.
Additionally, Netanyahu has implied that Abbas is the politician who can cash in on the peace dividend Palestinian citizens will supposedly enjoy as a result of Israel’s warming ties with Arab states through the so-called Abraham Accords.
Abbas’ former allies in the Joint List understand that Netanyahu is an entirely unreliable political partner, as he has demonstrated throughout his career and repeatedly in his dealings with Gantz.
Nonetheless, Abbas appears to believe that, on the back of Netanyahu’s implied endorsement, he can build a new conservative, largely Islamic political coalition to rival the Joint List.
His ambition, it seems, is to become an Islamic version of Shas, the Jewish religious party that has long allied with Netanyahu in return for regular concessions on narrow religious interests and socially conservative policies.
Abbas is wooing prominent local politicians, including Nazareth’s Salam, to build up the party’s popular base.
In a move to sow further division and drive a wedge in the Joint List, Netanyahu made a high-profile visit to Nazareth last month that was greeted with large protests. The prime minister declared a “new era in relations between Jews and Arabs”, adding that “Arab citizens should fully be a part of Israeli society.”
Attacking the Joint List, he said: “I am excited to see the huge change that is taking place in the Arab society towards me and the Likud [party] under my leadership. The Arab citizens of Israel, you join the Likud because you want to finally join the ruling party.”
Salam further twisted the knife into the Joint List as he praised Netanyahu: “The entire Arab society is disappointed over what they have given, and about their work and attitude toward their electorate.”
Despite Netanyahu’s promises of greater investment, violence has continued to rip through Palestinian communities during the election campaign. A 22-year-old nursing student was the latest victim last week, shot dead in the crossfire between a local gang and the police in the Palestinian town of Tamra.
Abbas will hope to exploit such violence as further evidence that he will be able to exert real pressure on Netanyahu if the prime minister is politically dependent on a strong Abbas-led party for support.
Netanyahu has little to lose from a political courtship of Abbas, however duplicitous.
As Aida Touma-Suleiman, a Knesset member, observed to MEE, the split risks damaging all Palestinian politicians. “We promised to fight the Israeli right. If we can’t do that, then why vote for us? Our electorate will head towards the Zionist parties,” she said.
Ghanem, the political analyst, agreed: “Netanyahu is telling the Palestinian public that they don’t need the Arab parties, that they are better off dealing directly with him.”
A recent poll suggested that Netanyahu’s new conciliatory approach might win his Likud up to two extra seats from Palestinian citizens, especially in more marginalised communities in the Negev.
Good vs bad Arabs
But Netanyahu stands to gain, however the Palestinian public in Israel responds.
If it punishes its parties over the split by failing to turn out to vote, the prime minister will benefit from the larger share of ballots cast for Jewish parties.
And if Abbas convinces enough Palestinian citizens that he has the key to unlock Netanyahu’s favours, his party may win a handful of seats – enough to enable Netanyahu to pass an immunity law to stymie his trial.
Last month, Odeh said in a tweet that Netanyahu “will not succeed in dividing us into good and bad Arabs”. And yet, having subverted the Joint List, that is exactly what Netanyahu has already achieved.
Now there are bad Arabs like Odeh and good, responsible ones like Abbas. And Netanyahu will hope to play them off against each other to keep himself in power.
• First published in Middle East Eye