Rifts in the Palestinian coalition have helped further the prime minister’s agenda, including foiling his own corruption trial
By Jonathan Cook
Published on the Middle East Eye, Feb 9, 2021
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 on Thursday night, 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 itself apart, 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 at 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.
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 was in many ways a victim of its own success.
Odeh had accepted the need to make an alliance with Gantz in the hope of gaining political influence, but was rejected.
Abbas pursued the same 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 has 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 this 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 he can build a new conservative, largely Islamic political coalition to rival the Joint List on the back of Netanyahu’s implied endorsement.
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 this week, shot dead in the crossfire between a local gang and the police in the Palestinian town of Tamra.
Abbas would hope to exploit such violence as further evidence that he would 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 with 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.
“Netanyahu is telling the Palestinian public that they don’t need the Arab parties, that they are better off dealing directly with him,” the political analyst said.
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 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.