What does Israel’s election mean for Palestinian factions?

The long-serving leader faces potential indictments in three corruption cases, while his right-wing Likud party has failed to open up a significant gap in the opinion polls ahead of its biggest rival, the Blue and White party, headed by former military chief Benny Gantz.

Days in advance of Israel’s second election in six months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life.

In a bid to shore up support among right-wing voters in the run-up to the poll, Netanyahu recently pledged to annex about 30 percent of the occupied West Bank if he wins. He also said he would ultimately look to “apply Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish communities”, a reference to illegal Israeli settlements.

The move, along with the potential publication of the US “peace plan” after the September 17 vote, has raised the stakes for Palestinian political leaders.

Senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah reacted with unsurprising anger. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official Hanan Ashrawi accused the Israeli prime minister of “not only destroying the two-state solution” but also “destroying all chances of peace”.

Hamas, for its part, said Netanyahu’s annexation remarks “neither change reality nor stop the resistance of our people against the Israeli occupation and schemes”.

‘Single agenda’

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which seeks a state in the West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and Gaza as part of any resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has not hidden its desire to see the back of the Israeli prime minister.

“The PA seems to have a single agenda with respect to the Israeli elections, which is seeking to prevent a Netanyahu victory,” Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, told Al Jazeera.

The PA’s reasoning, Rabbani continued, “is that Netanyahu forms the linchpin of the US-Israeli agenda to unilaterally resolve the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through measures such as annexation”, but that another leader “will re-engage the Palestinians in negotiations and thus also have a mitigating effect on US policy”.

Hamas, which administers the Gaza Strip, is managing its own challenges, particularly with respect to conditions in the blockaded territory.

Dana El Kurd, assistant professor in political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies said during the previous vote, Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniya expressed the view “that internal political matters among Zionists has no bearing on the Palestinian issue, and is tangential”.

However, El Kurd told Al Jazeera there is likely “some degree of similar belief that without Netanyahu, Hamas and Gaza specifically might have some more breathing room”.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump's address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017

Netanyahu has forged a close alliance with US President Donald Trump Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Those desperate to see the back of Netanyahu will have felt some validation for their single-minded focus when he made clear his annexation plans.

‘Terms of imprisonment’

However, the clear opposition to Netanyahu raises questions about what Palestinians could expect from his potential successor in Balfour Street.

The Likud leader’s main rival, in theory at least, is Gantz, whose Blue and White party coalesced prior to the last election with one clear goal: get rid of Netanyahu.

“I think the position the PA has taken is short-sighted and is a misreading of the present situation,” Tareq Baconi, Israel-Palestine analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“The threat of annexation is not limited to Netanyahu and the failure of the peace process is not the result of recent rightward shifts within Israel”, he said.

“Gantz himself has spoken about ensuring the strengthening of Israel’s control of the Jordan Valley if he comes to power, which is merely another guise for the annexation Netanyahu spoke about”, he said.

Indeed, Blue and White’s response to Netanyahu’s annexation pledge was to accuse him of stealing their own policy.

While Blue and White has been described by some analysts as effectively a second Likud, the PA leadership clearly sees more promise in the Democratic Union – a union between Meretz and former prime minister Ehud Barak.

In August, President Mahmoud Abbas met representatives from the centrist list, reportedly hinting at his desire to see Netanyahu defeated, and replaced by a leader willing to negotiate with the Palestinians in order to realise a two-state solution.

Labourers hang an election campaign banner depicting Benny Gantz, the leader of Blue and White party, in Tel Aviv, Israel September 9, 2019.

Gantz is expected to push Netanyahu close in the race to head Israel’s next government Ammar Awad/Reuters

Yet according Yara Hawari, a senior policy fellow at the Al-Shabaka think-tank, “it is difficult to see what the PA expects from a new Israeli government”.

“All the potential candidates – except for the Joint List of course – refuse to acknowledge or talk about two states. Palestine and the Palestinians are simply not an issue for them,” she said.

“The only thing they would be likely to negotiate is tidbits here and there, access permissions, a few economic deals – basically the terms of imprisonment and certainly not freedom and liberation.”

‘On the defensive’

If and when a new coalition government is agreed upon – Palestinian leaders and factions are going to face difficult decisions about how to manage what may follow, including the potential United States publication of a “peace plan”.

Should such a plan, or outline, see the light of day, it is likely to depart from even theoretical support for an independent Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967. The Trump administration has consistently refused to endorse such a framework, and White House officials have repeatedly referred to doing things in a different way to their predecessors.

Tellingly, an unnamed US official told Reuters news agency last week a rollout “is unlikely to be affected even if Netanyahu goes ahead with the Jordan Valley annexation plan after the election”.

Although the stakes are high, analysts believe the PA is not strategising for differences in Israeli policy that could follow the formation of a new government.

“The only strategy that the PA is pursuing is internationalisation,” said Baconi, “and biding time until the global arena is more favourable to pursue multilateral negotiations.”

El Kurd similarly does not “see any coherent strategy”, which she attributes to the fact “the PA has been treading water for some time, particularly after the Trump administration came to power”.

Pointing to the PA’s repeated threats to end “security coordination” with Israeli occupation forces that “never actually come to fruition”, El Kurd argued while “the PA leadership lost momentum and legitimacy long ago”, the “renewed assaults on their state-building attempts from Trump and his supposed deal of the century” have meant “becoming even more reactive”.

For Hamas, meanwhile, “the strategy is to ensure the continuation of the short-term ceasefire cycles with Israel and to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Gaza”, Baconi told Al Jazeera.

While the PA seemingly plays for time in the diplomatic arena, Hamas has its own priorities, as Rabbani explained, “namely securing its rule in the Gaza Strip and maintaining military force as leverage in its relationship with Israel” – with a “broader agenda to secure formal regional and international recognition as a legitimate actor in the Israeli-Palestinian equation”.

The combination of ongoing political divisions, a US administration methodically endorsing key demands of the Israeli government, and the long-standing power asymmetry means the Palestinian leadership will face the results of Israel’s election with limited strategy and capacity.

“They are on the defensive rather than the offensive”, Baconi said.

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