Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Everything is Linked (April 26, 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.

Everything is Linked: Gaza and Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian elections, Palestinian and Israeli Islamists


Q. Over the weekend, Hamas fired dozens of rockets from Gaza into Israel. Hamas claimed it was responding to violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem. What’s the connection?

A. The complex interaction of Israeli and Palestinian politics has thrust Hamas into a leadership role. It feels obliged to renew violence against Israel in an open protest against the plight of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

What is the Jerusalem Palestinians’ complaint? For starters, the Netanyahu government will not allow them to vote in Jerusalem in upcoming Palestinian elections (reminder: they aren’t allowed to vote in Israeli national elections either). Meanwhile, one of Netanyahu’s Kahanist political allies, the Lehava organization, was allowed to rampage through Arab East Jerusalem. Then an inexperienced chief of Israel Police, Kobi Shabtai, backed by a far-right domestic security minister, Amir Ohana, both serving a dysfunctional government, forbade traditional Ramadan evening gatherings of Jerusalem Palestinians at the Damascus Gate that leads to the Old City.

Ramadan is traditionally a time of evening family gatherings and of high Arab nationalist and religious emotions. Netanyahu will seemingly do anything to cater to the Kahanists whom he helped get elected and whom he is trying to convince to join his coalition and coexist with Raam, the Islamist Arab party that seeks an unprecedented direct role in Israeli governance.

That explains the violent demonstrations in Jerusalem. But Hamas in Gaza clearly has additional reasons to fire rockets at Israel. It has staked out a leadership role vis-à-vis no fewer than three opposing Fateh lists in the May 22 elections for the Palestinian parliament. And the Gazan Islamists of Hamas have drawn inspiration from the success of their fellow Israeli Islamists in the Raam party in forcing both Netanyahu and his political opponents to court their political support.

The Gazan economy is ailing and its covid rate, like that in the West Bank, is soaring--good reasons to distract the ‘street’ with violence against Israel. Then too, a flare-up of Arab-Jewish tensions in Jaffa, where a West Bank settler group is trying to expand a yeshiva in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, also inspired Hamas to ‘lead’ violently. So violently, and so strong the prospect of Gaza-Israel escalation, that IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi saw fit to cancel his trip to Washington. There, an Israeli security delegation, acknowledging that the United States and Tehran are heading for a renewed JCPOA nuclear deal in Vienna, is planning to lobby for at least a tougher agreement: more inspections and a delayed sunset clause.


Q. Hamas may be leading the polls, but the Palestinian elections are not a done deal. We hear threats from Ramallah to cancel them. . .

A. Palestinian Authority President and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has two possible reasons to cancel (ostensibly, “postpone”) Palestinian elections. One is the Netanyahu government’s refusal to permit Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem. Israel permitted Jerusalem voting in some of the Palestinian elections held in the ‘90s and the early years of this millenium. Its current refusal is ostensibly based on the Palestinian conceit to hold elections for the ‘state of Palestine’ and not the Palestinian Authority as stipulated in the long defunct Oslo Accords of 1994. Of course, the PA could set up polling stations for Jerusalemites in the West Bank: that has also been done before.

The more pressing reason for a possible PA cancellation of elections is the simple fact that Fateh, the ruling party, signatory to Oslo and Israel’s security partner, is liable to lose to Hamas. Fateh is corrupt; Abbas in unpopular. Fateh’s politicians are running in three separate, conflicted lists. Hamas is set to win at least a plurality against the three in the West Bank; no contest in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The Hamas electoral list is deliberately provocative, featuring a number of hardline candidates and convicted terrorists, thereby belying any pretense on the part of Hamas to operate in two separate political and military wings. The leader of one of the Fateh factions, the jailed (in Israel) Marwan Barghouti, is predicted to defeat Abu Mazen in the presidential election set for July 31.

Israel and reportedly Egypt and Jordan as well have quietly advised Abu Mazen not to even hold elections under these circumstances. A Hamas victory would almost certainly precipitate violence in the West Bank as well as Gaza and Jerusalem. Recall that the Hamas victory in the last elections, held back in 2006 with active US support, led to the violent Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. Then again, cancellation of the Palestinian elections is also almost certain, under current circumstances, to incite more violence.


Q. Meanwhile, who is forming a government in Israel? Netanyahu? Bennet? Lapid?

A. Netanyahu still has a mandate from President Rivlin until May 5. But his efforts have run out of steam and are increasingly pathetic. He is desperately reaching out for magical formulae. One day he has a political toady from an ultra-Orthodox party suggest direct election of the prime minister. Then he attacks Naftali Bennet for refusing to serve under him, in an unusually hysterical and panicky TV appearance. The next day he phones a total ideological rival, Meirav Michaeli of Labor, to invite her into a coalition. Then he phones Blue White’s Benny Gantz and offers him the premiership for the first year of a rotation arrangement, but only if the corrupt Netanyahu family can continue to live at Balfour St., the PM’s official residence.

Even Netanyahu’s extremist National Religious ally, Betzalel Smotrich who egged on right-wing rioters in Jerusalem, has openly suggested replacing Netanyahu. The latter’s basic problem (finally?) is that no one trusts him anymore. At a minimum, Netanyahu has proven incapable of maneuvering Yamina’s Naftali Bennet, Smotrich and Mansour Abbas of Raam into the same coalition. Absent even one of these actors and Netanyahu has no coalition. Nor does he have the votes to change the system and launch direct prime ministerial elections that might reflect his ongoing support among a plurality (not a majority) of Israelis in the face of a divided and conflicted right-center-left opposition.


Q. So, back to that opposition. Is it making any progress toward uniting in an alternative coalition?

A. Yes, but not without huge difficulties. First, because the only common denominator uniting anti-Netanyahu politicians from the right, center and left is their drive to replace Netanyahu and restore sensible governance to Israel. They all know they will have to make painful compromises on issues like religion and state, pressures to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians, and relations with the Biden administration. Those concessions will come with a political price tag next election.

Second, because the right-wing candidates for this alternative coalition insist on making fewer compromises than the others. Bennet and Gideon Saar, who lead the two rightist parties, Yamina and New Hope, are citing the precedent created by Netanyahu himself in the outgoing government. In May 2020 Netanyahu, for lack of an alternative, agreed that the remnant of Gantz’s Blue White party and part of Labor, with a total of only 17 members of Knesset, would have parity in the distribution of ministerial portfolios and in Cabinet votes, alongside the Likud and its ultra-Orthodox allies who garnered 52 mandates. The result was a totally unmanageable Cabinet of 27 ministers and a government that collapsed by year’s end.

Now Bennet and Saar, with a mere 13 MKs between them, want parity with the 45 mandates of the center and left: Yesh Atid, Blue White, Labor, Meretz and Yisrael Beitenu. They want Bennet to ‘rotate’ as prime minister ahead of Yair Lapid, who garnered more than twice as many votes. They want the right-wing parties in the coalition to be assigned all the ‘ideological’ portfolios, like education and justice, so their ‘values’ will prevail. They want veto-power within the coalition.

Needless to say, Lapid, Liberman and their left-wing partners don’t agree. That, essentially, is what the anti-Netanyahu alternative coalition talks are about. Bennet in particular believes the talks must make sufficient progress before Netanyahu’s mandate runs out next week. He and Lapid have to convince President Rivlin to transfer Netanyahu’s mandate to the opposition rather than return the mandate to the Knesset and almost certainly usher in a fifth round of elections.


Q. But even if this right-center-left coalition is somehow agreed, it still has only 58 mandates...

A. This is where the two Arab parties come into play. At a minimum, Raam (four mandates) or the Joint List (six) must agree to support the coalition. Raam began to do so last week when it voted against Netanyahu’s potential coalition and in favor of the anti-Netanyahu camp regarding establishment of the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, which is key to organizing the functioning of Israel’s legislative branch. In so doing, Raam leader Mansour Abbas proved an astute politician. He followed up by declaring that he wants an open coalition agreement with Bennet and Lapid--no secret deals, no abstaining on the vote to establish a coalition.

What else the Islamist Abbas is demanding in return for supporting an anti-Netanyahu coalition that comprises 13 ideological rightists remains to be seen. How the rightists will react to these demands remains to be seen.


Q. Bottom line?

A. Immediately after the elections for this new Knesset, I argued that in view of the outcome, coalition talks would again fail and a fifth round of elections was the most likely outcome. This is still where we appear to be heading.

Desperate politicians like Bennet--the man who straddles both camps, hence has the most to lose by failing to form either a coalition with Netanyahu or a coalition with the anti-Netanyahu camp--argue that this would be a disaster for Israel. More likely a disaster for Bennet.