Israel Will Work to Foil Hamas Participation in Palestinian Elections

Netanyahu tells MKs: Israel won't allow PA to conduct elections in East Jerusalem; Israel decides to hold PA responsible for any Gaza rockets.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Israel will not hold negotiations with the new Palestinian unity government and will oppose Hamas participation in the Palestinian elections if and when they take place, the security cabinet decided on Monday.

“Israel will work, including in the international arena, to oppose the participation of terrorist organizations in the elections,” the panel said in a statement issued at the end of its two-and-a-half-hour meeting.

Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel would not allow the Palestinian Authority to conduct elections in East Jerusalem for either its parliamentary or its presidential election, if the Fatah-Hamas unity government indeed leads to such elections being held in another few months, as called for in their reconciliation deal.

Several Knesset members present at the meeting said that Netanyahu cited “the lessons of the past” as the reason for the change in Israel’s policy on this issue. During the PA’s parliamentary election in 2006, Israel allowed campaigning in East Jerusalem and also let the PA open polling booths there.

“Netanyahu said he wasn’t saying whether he was for or against such elections, but noted the results of recent elections at Palestinian universities in the West Bank, in which Hamas beat Fatah,” one MK said.

The premier told the MKs that he believes the unity government serves Hamas’ interests rather than those of PA President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.

"The result of the reconciliation will be that Hamas won’t lose its influence in Gaza, and it may even increase its influence in Judea and Samaria,” they quoted him as saying, using the Hebrew term for the West Bank.

The security cabinet decided that Israel would hold the Palestinian unity government responsible for any attack on Israel from either the West Bank or Gaza, including rocket fire. It did not decide on any immediate punitive steps against the PA, but authorized the prime minister to impose such sanctions in the future. The ministers also decided to set up a task force “to examine ways of dealing with the reality that has been created, and with the diplomatic and security situations that may arise in the future.”

“Abu Mazen has made an alliance with Hamas, which is responsible for the murder of more than 1,000 innocent Israelis and the launching of thousands of missiles at Israeli cities,” Netanyahu said at the end of the meeting. “Abu Mazen has made an alliance with Hamas – an organization that has been declared a terrorist organization in the U.S., Europe, Egypt and throughout the world, that utterly rejects the international community’s conditions – and the international community must treat him accordingly. The agreement with Hamas makes Abu Mazen directly responsible for terror emanating from Gaza. The State of Israel will not conduct diplomatic negotiations with a Palestinian government that relies on Hamas, a terrorist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction.”

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) took the most aggressive line against the Palestinian unity government, saying Israel should announce that it doesn’t recognize the new government and would sever all ties with it. But this demand was opposed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), both of whom argued that the government must maintain at least some channels of communication with the new government.

In the end, the security cabinet adopted the Livni-Lapid position, deciding that contact could be maintained with some of the new Palestinian ministers. But any such contact will require approval from Netanyahu. The guiding principle will be that each request should be evaluated on its own merits.

The panel also decided that security coordination with the Palestinians will continue.

During the meeting, Bennett and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) also raised the idea of annexing some West Bank settlement blocs in response to the Fatah-Hamas unity government. But Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) objected, saying this should be considered only if the Palestinians take additional unilateral steps, such as applying to more UN institutions.

The panel ultimately decided to set up a special task force to consider alternative diplomatic moves, ranging from Bennett’s annexation proposal to Livni’s proposal to freeze construction in all settlements except the major blocs.

According to the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation deal, the unity government’s main job will be to prepare to hold parliamentary and presidential elections within about six months. The Fatah-Hamas schism had prevented these elections from being held on schedule, and the terms of both Abbas and the PA parliament actually ended almost five years ago.

The assessment in both Israel and the PA is that even with the unity government having been established, the chances of new parliamentary elections taking place aren’t high. But if they are called, and Israel indeed prevents voting from taking place in East Jerusalem, that is likely to lead to their cancelation.

Prior to the 2006 parliamentary election, Israel initially refused to allow polling booths to be set up in East Jerusalem, or even to allow East Jerusalem residents to vote or run for office. Yuval Diskin, then head of the Shin Bet security service, was the leading advocate of this policy, mainly because Hamas was running in the election and he thought it was likely to win. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government accepted his recommendation, arguing that East Jerusalem was under Israeli sovereignty, and therefore, PA elections could not be held there.

But then-U.S. President George Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, exerted heavy pressure on Sharon to let the election take place. The Americans argued that preventing voting in East Jerusalem would result in the election being canceled and undermine the Palestinians’ democratic right to choose their parliamentary representatives. In the end, Sharon gave in to this American pressure, though the official decision was made only after he had suffered a stroke and entered a coma.

The acting prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, was the one who actually passed the cabinet decision allowing campaigning and voting to take place in East Jerusalem. Palestinian residents of the city voted at polling stations set up in local post offices, and the ballots were then sent to Ramallah for counting.

A few weeks before the election, due to fear of losing to Hamas, senior Fatah officials tried to persuade Israel to rescind its agreement to let voting take place in East Jerusalem, hoping that this would lead to the election being postponed and prevent a Hamas victory. However, Israel declined to do so.

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