With the coming election, the pandemic and the warnings about Iran’s progress with its nuclear project, Israel is barely devoting attention to what’s happening under its nose in the Palestinian arena. Israeli politicians are too busy, and when senior military people are asked about it, some go into downplay mode.
The Palestinians, it’s claimed, are preoccupied with the health and economic damage inflicted by the coronavirus and are busy preparing for their own general election, in May, which the Palestinian Authority and Hamas surprisingly agreed to. On Israeli defense officials’ list of concerns, the Palestinians occupy a modest place.
That could prove shortsighted, and a few officials see things differently. They remember the times when Israel thought that nothing unusual was threatening it in the territories under its control, whether directly or indirectly.
That was the thinking on the eve of the first intifada in December 1987 (“the Palestinians are mainly worried about making a living”), and on the eve of the only election ever for the Palestinian parliament, in January 2006, when Hamas took the PA and Israeli intelligence by surprise and won. The subsequent crisis between Hamas and Fatah accelerated the former’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip a year and a half later.
After more than a decade of reconciliation talks, and countless mistaken reports about a breakthrough, it seems this time the Palestinian president seriously intends to hold an election. Mahmoud Abbas has apparently concluded that an election is the right way to attract the attention of the new U.S. administration.
Israel, meanwhile, is increasingly concerned that Hamas will win at the ballot box. In Gaza no one will challenge support for the organization, and in the West Bank voters will flock to Hamas amid the weakness and corruption attributed to the PA leaders. Some intelligence people perceive an intolerable risk that could deteriorate into a military clash between Hamas and Israel.
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Some Hamas leaders, among them two deportees from the West Bank, Salah al-Arouri and Khaled Meshal, see a quick takeover of the West Bank, before or after Abbas leaves the stage, as a crucial step in the organization’s development. In the dialogue with the international community, the Hamas leadership refuses to accept the Quartet’s four terms, one of which is recognition of Israel.
Israeli leaders who have spoken with Abbas in recent months warned him about a possible Hamas victory and recommended that he find a way to suspend the election. “Is that the legacy you want to leave?” he was asked.
It’s hard to imagine Israeli tanks returning to Ramallah and Nablus to block the results of a democratic vote. Hopefully Israel won’t find itself in the shoes of the Soviet Union that invaded its neighbors in the ‘50s and ‘60s – and it’s a sure thing that the Democrats in the United States won’t allow any such move.
How the Biden administration will treat the Palestinian election is related indirectly to its approach to Saudi Arabia. After Donald Trump’s passionate romance with the royal family in Riyadh, these are new times. The Democrats, who were severely critical of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by emissaries of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, recently also condemned the killing of civilians in the Saudis’ no-holds-barred war in Yemen. Washington also removed the Houthi rebels there, who are supported by Iran, from the list of terrorist organizations.
Still, the Saudis might have a window of opportunity to improve their relations with the administration and upgrade their status in the region. Crown Prince Mohammed, who is maintaining a low profile, was the driving force in the normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He also backed Trump’s peace deal for the Palestinians, which predictably ended in failure.
Maybe the time has come for Riyadh to revive the Saudi initiative, which then-Crown Prince Abdullah put forward in 2002 and was adopted by the Arab League. That move, accompanied by normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the renewal of substantive Israeli-Palestinian talks, could shake things up in the Middle East (and as a bonus drive the Iranians up the wall).
As for Iran, this week the strategic discussion demanded by Defense Minister Benny Gantz finally took place. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yielded to pressure from Gantz and convened the top diplomatic and security ranks to address the recent changes, notably Joe Biden’s inclination to quickly join a revisited nuclear agreement with Tehran. The strategic dialogue between Israel and the United States is set to resume soon, with the Iranian issue at the top of the agenda.
Netanyahu continues to espouse a militant line. Israel’s leaders, he says, have a historic duty to make clear to the world how terrible an amended agreement will be. Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi believe that Israel needs to work with the Americans to try to influence their views before a new deal is signed.
This dispute won’t be decided soon. Netanyahu won’t allow a significant dialogue until the Knesset election, now less than a month away. It’s unlikely that anything will change after that, either, as along as a caretaker government is in charge. In the meantime, the Americans will probably start talking directly with the Iranians.