Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Elections in both Israel and the PA (March 30, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Elections in both Israel and the PA: From Abbas to Abbas


Q. Abbas and Abbas?

A. Mansour Abbas and his Raam party are pioneering an effort to generate an active role for Palestinian citizens in the next Israeli government. Mahmoud Abbas (no relation), president of the Palestinian Authority, has after 15 years finally initiated elections in a contest that, against all the odds, looks set to happen in May, July and August.

Ostensibly, other than the coincidence of a family name, there is no link between these two Palestinian dynamics. Indeed Raam, an Islamist party, is ideologically closer to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood than to the nationalist Fateh, which rules the PA. But Raam is downplaying its Islamist credentials in order to appeal to a broader Arab and Jewish public in Israel, while Fateh and Hamas are closely collaborating on the staging of Palestinian elections. Mansour Abbas (his name is often rendered Abbas Mansour in the media) is even planning a PR campaign in Hebrew to allay Jewish suspicions in Israel of his Islamist credentials.

Between the two of them, then, Mahmoud Abbas and Mansour Abbas are trying to blur the old political and ideological borders between Palestinian nationalists and Palestinian Islamists and between Arabs and Jews in Israel.


Q. Will they succeed? Let’s start with Israel, Mansour Abbas and Raam.

A. As an Islamist, Mansour Abbas is temperamentally closer to the Israeli right-religious mainstream, despite its anti-Palestinian ideology, than to the more sympathetic Israeli left with its commitment to a two-state solution. For example, Raam’s conservatism pairs it with the Likud. Its strong opposition to LGBTQ rights pairs it with Religious Zionism, Israel’s most extreme right-wing party. But that same Kahanist-racist party refuses so far to join a coalition under PM Netanyahu that makes room for Raam. Yet without both Raam and Religious Zionism, Netanyahu has no coalition of 61.

Netanyahu, a legendary ‘wizard’ at political magic tricks, may yet find a way to overcome this challenge. After all, he faces no competition for leadership of the political right, he has been cultivating Raam for some time, and his potential coalition also includes Shas and Torah Judaism, two Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that should have less difficulty cohabiting with fundamentalist Muslims. Netanyahu’s right-hand man, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, is a fluent Arabic-speaker who is close to Abbas.

But Abbas is taking no chances and has already begun dialoguing with the other half of the incoming Knesset, the left, center and rightist opponents of Netanyahu. Here the political dynamic is more complex insofar as this anti-Netanyahu bloc, which potentially is larger than Netanyahu’s, cannot even agree on a candidate for prime minister. The very secular Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) has by far the most mandates (17) and best claim to leadership, but right-wingers Gideon Saar (6) and Naftali Bennet (7) don’t like him, and centrist Benny Gantz (8) is lukewarm. They declare they will serve in a government with Lapid, but not under Lapid. Some of these anti-Netanyahu rightists don’t like the idea of a government that comprises Raam, either.

So how does Mansour Abbas deal with these options? “We’re not in anyone’s pocket, not on the right and not on the left,” Abbas declares. So far he has met post-elections with Lapid but not Netanyahu, with whom he insists on an official, public meeting. Helpfully, Raam is emphasizing conditions for joining a coalition--any coalition--that right-wing Jewish parties should have relatively little problem with: a serious anti-crime campaign in the Arab sector, funds for Arab housing, legislation for Arab village expansion, and recognition of Negev Bedouin encampments as villages (Islamic conservative Negev Bedouin voted overwhelmingly for Raam).

Abbas is also planning a public relations campaign to prepare both the Arab and Jewish publics and politicians to welcome the ground-breaking idea of an Arab party in the governing coalition. He’ll speak to the public in Hebrew. 

Of course, Raam’s Arab voters need no convincing: that’s why they voted for Abbas. But there are six additional members of the new Knesset in the predominantly Arab Joint List whom Abbas abandoned for his independent electoral run and whose external support for an anti-Netanyahu coalition that includes Abbas is needed.

Note that the Joint List still ideologically rejects coalition membership. It represents more Arab citizens of Israel than Raam. It supports a two-state solution with Israel as a bi-national Jewish-Arab state adjacent to a Palestinian state. And it is disgusted with the idea that Mansour Abbas may join a coalition with Netanyahu and the Israeli right-religious mainstream, all of whom reject a two-state solution and favor settlement expansion throughout the West Bank. 

For his part, Mansour Abbas is politically astute enough to dodge the two-state bullet. “Our goal is to live in safety and receive rights and services from the state,” he declares. That doesn’t sound controversial: there is nothing here about either Islam or Palestinian national rights. Ostensibly, why should anyone in the Israeli right-religious mainstream--whether in the Netanyahu camp or against him--find fault with Raam’s platform?

Yet Raam is an Islamist party. Could it conceivably join an Israeli coalition, whether under Netanyahu or anti-Netanyahu, without consulting with sister Islamist parties and brother Islamist leaders elsewhere in the region like Hamas in Gaza, the exiled leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Erdogan in Turkey--all hostile toward Israel? And if it does join a Zionist coalition, what would this mean for Israel’s relations both with political Islam and with friendly neighbors like Egypt and the UAE that resolutely reject political Islam?


Q. Your bottom line on Mansour Abbas?

A. This will be complicated. Raam’s absolute centrality to the formation of a new coalition means this will be a prolonged process. Meanwhile, the evidentiary phase of Netanyahu’s corruption trial begins in earnest on April 5, the very day President Rivlin begins deliberating the identity of the person charged first with forming a coalition.

Deadlock and a fifth round of elections are still, in this observer’s eyes, the most likely outcome. If that means no Arab party participation in government, that will compound the setback for Israeli democracy.


Q. Turning to Mahmoud Abbas, beyond the fact that these will be the first Palestinian elections in 15 years, what dynamics stand out?

A. First, the timing. Abbas appears to have initiated elections after such a long delay because he hopes to find favor with the Biden administration, which has begun reinstating elements of US financial support for the Palestinian Authority that were canceled by the Trump administration. Mahmoud Abbas may hope that President Biden will undertake to sponsor a renewed peace process between Israel and a demonstratively democratic PLO. Then too, at 85, Abbas may wish to put Palestinian affairs in order prior to departing the scene.

Another possible motive for Abbas’s decision and timing concerns Hamas and Palestinian political Islam. Failure to reach agreement with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, was the explanation given for the cancellation of earlier attempts to hold an election. Now the two ruling movements, Hamas in Gaza and Fateh in the West Bank, appear after a series of meetings held in Egypt to have reached agreement regarding the modalities of elections. Jibril Rajoub, secretary general of Fateh’s Central Committee and a primary candidate to succeed Abbas, played a key role in the Cairo negotiations, drawing on family and prison connections with Hamas leaders (he served 17 years in Israeli prisons for terrorist activities).

According to some media reports, Rajoub’s Cairo talks with the Gaza Hamas leadership also led to a tentative Hamas commitment to cease rocket, tunnel and suicide attacks against Israel in favor of ‘popular peaceful resistance’. Indeed, a ceasefire in and around Gaza seems to be largely holding. However temporary this may be, it is important for Palestinian elections insofar as it encourages Israel not to impede the elections, particularly among the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem.

Then too, Palestinian success in persuading the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza and the legality of the settlement enterprise in the West Bank has put wind in Palestinian sails. Abbas’s election initiative capitalizes on this.

Finally, Abbas’s decision to space out the Palestinian elections over a period of months appears to have rendered it easier for all Palestinian parties to agree. Elections to the Palestinian parliament will take place on May 22, presidential elections on July 30, and Palestinian National Council elections, which comprise the Palestinian diaspora as well, on August 31. Conceivably, one or more Palestinian factions could decide after the first or second round, depending on the outcome, to demand a delay in the second or third round.


Q. All well and good. But what if Hamas wins? In the absence of a peace process, Israeli governments have in recent years at least managed security coordination with the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority. But with a triumphant Hamas?

A. Hamas is considered unlikely to win more than 30 percent of the vote in the West Bank. With the Palestinians’ new proportional system (similar to Israel’s), that means Fateh should emerge as dominant as ever in the West Bank. Just in case, Israeli security personnel are reportedly actively discouraging Hamas candidates in the West Bank, with Fateh connivance.

In Gaza, in contrast, Hamas is expected to win and in any case is not likely to cede control over the Strip, whatever the outcome. Ostensibly, then, things won’t change in the Israel-Palestinian relationship. In practice, however, these Palestinian elections, if held on time and deemed fair and democratic, could prove momentous.

For one, alongside Abbas loyalists like Rajoub and PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, a number of Fateh challengers to Abbas’s rule as president have emerged, led by the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti and by Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of the late Yasser Arafat. Factions loyal to exiled Gazan security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who is backed by the UAE and possibly Egypt, and to former prime minister Salam Fayyad, an anti-corruption candidate, have emerged.

After 15 years without elections, no one knows for sure how well any of the candidates and factions will do. Accordingly, it is difficult to talk about ramifications for Palestinian relations with Israel and the Biden administration. Given that Hamas is classified by both as a terrorist organization, would either Jerusalem or Washington agree to deal with a PA government that comprises even minority and symbolic Hamas representation? Neither Israel nor the US can easily object to democratic Palestinian elections. But how will they deal with the outcome?

How would Israel deal with a triumph by Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in Israel for terrorist acts in the second Intifada (2000-2004) and is considered heroically popular among West Bank Palestinians? As for Abbas, will he go quietly if he loses a rare democratic election in the Arab world?


Q. Your bottom line regarding both Abbas and Abbas?

A. In Israel, Mansour Abbas is an Islamist seeking a legitimate role in politics and governance. In the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas is holding elections in which the Islamist Hamas is participating while holding its fire. If Islamists are able to participate in the Israeli and Palestinian polities, ramifications for Israel and the Arab world could be far-reaching.

But don’t hold your breath. A great many developments, foreseen and unforeseen, could crop up to thwart these dynamics in either Israel, the Palestinian Authority, or both.