What comes after Abbas and Netanyahu?
A leadership vacuum is looming, and its effect on the peace process and everyday life has alarmed many observers.
With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing corruption charges and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat dealing with health issues, analysts say that a political upheaval is on the docket in the coming few months in Israel/Palestine.
Although there is an increasingly narrow difference between the way Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) treat Palestinians in the occupied territories, Israel remains the occupying power under international law, continuing to deny Palestinians their rights on both sides of the Green Line and as refugees.
The current ubiquitous question appears to be: “Who will become the next prime minister/president of Israel/Palestine?”
A leadership vacuum is looming. Its effect on the peace process and everyday life has alarmed many actors, especially those in the international donor community, who have invested billions of dollars to sustain the status quo.
They need not be troubled: Though the reasons for the Israeli and Palestinian vacuums are different, each will be filled with similar home-grown and entrenched institutions and individuals.
An increasing number of observers predict that Netanyahu will likely serve a prison sentence in the near future, but this, according to writer Neve Gordon, will mean little for Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
Potential successors – from Likud’s Gideon Saar, to Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, to Labor’s Avi Gabbay, to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid – hardly hold different views from Netanyahu. In fact, these potential prime ministers are even more racist and invested in Israel’s colonial project.
As Donald Trump entered the White House, Saar called on the Israeli government to “dissociate from the ‘two-states’ paradigm and reject the dangerous idea of establishing a Palestinian state in the heart of Israel”, arguing that the “conditions are ripe for such a move”.
He has also advocated for “a Jordanian-Palestinian federative solution”. Bennett, in turn, has called on a number of occasions for the annexation of the West Bank, declaring that the “era of the Palestinian state is over”.
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Last year, Lapid announced: “We need to get the Palestinians out of our lives. What we have to do is build a high wall and get them out of our sight.” This sharper turn towards the right, especially when it comes to issues concerning Palestine, will further solidify the institutions and pundits disseminating extreme views, according to analysts and observers.
This has been a process long in the making, as the recent annual strategic report of Madar – The Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies reveals. Public opinion polls and trends over the past decade illustrate troubling shifts in Israeli society, such as the rise of radical settler communities, which do not bode well for peace and justice.
Public responses to Erekat’s lung transplant, Elor Azaria’s murder trial, and the Hebron settlers who occupied a Palestinian family’s house show how far Israeli society remains from engaging in any form of meaningful peace-building project.
As Gideon Levy argues: “To generate change, Israeli society has to undergo a painful process, no sign of which is on the horizon … Netanyahu is going, and Israel is staying the way it was.” As such, colonial society as a whole – not just the political and security establishments – will rule after Netanyahu.
The situation is not any better on the Palestinian side, as the political legitimacy gaps expand, the fragmentation deepens, and the internal divide hardens. The fragility of the Palestinian political system has been further exposed in the wake of Abbas’s recent medical check-up and the deterioration of Erekat’s health.
To alleviate some of the risk associated with a political transition, Abbas decided to upgrade – once again – his intelligence chief, Majid Faraj.
Over the last decade, the PA and the donor community have invested billions of dollars in the reform of the security establishment. The donor-backed PA leadership is now preparing PA security forces to dominate the post-Abbas period. This does not bode well for democracy, particularly given the PA’s mantra of ruling with “an iron fist” since 2007.
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Under the pretext of ensuring stability and avoiding chaos, the PA has become increasingly authoritarian and used its security forces to solidify its position. In such an environment, it is hard to imagine any meaningful democratic political transition, even if Palestinian National Council elections take place in the fall as currently planned.
The election as envisaged now is anything but inclusive, transparent or representative. It also risks entrenching the intra-Palestinian divide and creating additional distortions and fragmentation within the Palestinian national movement, analyst Hani al-Masri has warned.
An additional repressive regime is the last thing that the Palestinian people need. Further PA security establishment control over the Palestinian political system will only weaken an already dysfunctional polity. The political elite will also bolster the security forces’ collaboration with Israel, as dictated by the 1993 Oslo Accords.
While the current Palestinian leadership characterises this security coordination as “sacred”, for some future Fatah leaders, it is also “part and parcel of our liberation strategy”.
In addition, political leaders will continue to fixate on a failed two-state paradigm and a US-sponsored “peace process”. Indeed, the Fatah-dominated political elite even finds a source of inspiration in the Trump administration.
Last week, the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington declared: “Our major source of excitement and hope is President Trump himself.” Whatever comes after Abbas and Netanyahu will, therefore, look similar to what we find today. To change that, there must be resistance to all the trends discussed above.
Real change cannot come from the same institutions that nourished the Netanyahu and Abbas regimes, and neither will it come from the “leaders” lining up for the prime ministerial and presidential posts. They, too, are part of the institutional setting that has sustained the Israeli occupation and the status quo.
The panacea for a real change arises through engaging in contentious collective actions that aim to challenge the existing actors and institutions and their claims of political representation. Fundamentally, this necessitates creating new effective, legitimate and representative institutional bodies that are inclusive, people-driven and participatory by structure and design.
Yet the question remains: Though the Palestinian people are desperate for change, is Israeli society interested in it? Or is it happy with Israel the way it is, a settler-colonial state and violator of international law that benefits from the oppression and occupation of a people?