Towards a real and lasting Palestinian unity?

 

The Palestinian Authority and Hamas have reached a deal to form a national unity government that might finally pave the way to end intra-Palestinian divisions and feuds

 

After three days of dialogue held in Moscow under Russia’s auspices, last Tuesday the representatives of the main Palestinian political groups –the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad- announced the reaching of a deal to form a national unity government.

According to the deal, the various groups involved in it will now join Palestinian institutions, will form a new Palestinian National Council (PNC), and will hold long-awaited elections. The last time in which credible and inclusive elections were held, in fact, was more than ten years ago –in 2006- when Hamas’ victory and the subsequent fractions emerged within the Palestinian front led to the rupture Hamas-Fatah and to the de facto division of Palestine between Gaza, since 2007 under Hamas’ rule, and the West Bank, under the control of Abbas and the PA.

Since then, Palestinian politics has deeply suffered due to this internal division that has weakened the credibility of Palestine as a cohesive and credible actor on the international stage, and has compromised any possibility of reaching a two-state solution. The dialogues held last week, if actually turned into the concrete  measures they promise, could thus be the first step toward the resolution of this decade-old fragmentation and a new beginning for Palestinian politics.

 

Over the past years, attempts were made to bring unity within the Palestinian government. However, no initiative for a long-lasting reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah proved successful and internal divisions have continued to prevail, up to the point that last September the Palestinian High Court decided that municipal elections should be held in the West Bank only and then suspended the entire electoral process.

Despite this, though, efforts at reconciliation have now been retrieved and the explanation is to to be found looking at both the international and the intra-Palestinian level.

 

Over the past months, the ascent of Donald Trump and his pro-Israeli rhetoric; the appointment of Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel; the Amona case; and the continuous construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank have brought once again the Palestinian issue and the two-state solution to the attention of the international community – that over the past years had been mostly focused on other Middle Eastern problems. In the context of this renewed attention given to the Palestinian issue, important episodes were the adoption on part of the UN Security Council of a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, and the international conference on peace in the Middle East held in France and attended by representatives of 70 countries. Though the impact these initiatives will have is likely to be extremely limited, they are nonetheless important steps that reveal the general pro-Palestinian attitude of the international community and the growing isolation of Israel.

It is thus on the background of these developments on the international stage that it is possible to explain Abbas’ decision to take advantage of this mood of general support by reaching a Palestinian political unity. Indeed, only by overcoming internal divisions and by giving to Palestine a unitary government, can Abbas present the Palestinian state as a cohesive, credible, and reliable actor and encourage further the backing of the international community – a goal particularly important in a moment in which Trump’s advent to the White House rises uncertainties and concerns among the Palestinians.

 

To these considerations we should then add the Palestinian internal dimension, so as to give a more comprehensive explanation of the reasons that have led now the various Palestinian groups to renew attempts at unity.

As far as Abbas is concerned, despite his leadership being confirmed last November at the Congress of Fatah, the Palestinian leader has seen his popularity decrease diminish over the years. The achievement of a lasting national unity would thus represent for Abbas and his future political legacy an extremely important success capable of ameliorating his image to the eyes of a Palestinian people tired of divisions and feuds. Moreover, Fatah has been since 2007 in a situation in which its legitimacy as guide of the Palestinians is continuously challenged and questioned by the presence of Hamas’ government in Gaza and by the frictions existing with the other groups of the Palestinian political mosaic. The only solution for Fatah to solve this legitimacy problem is through the calling of and the participation in truly inclusive elections.

On its part, Hamas is experiencing difficulties at governing over Gaza. At this respect, the most recent example is represented by the difficulties that the group is having in providing constant energy to the Gazans and that, last week, ultimately sparked a wave of protests. As these protests have revealed, Hamas’ difficulties at governing risk deteriorating the popular support which the group traditionally enjoys in Gaza and this makes it reasonable for Hamas to pursue a reconciliation with Fatah and to join a national unity government that can ameliorate governability in the Strip and thus save the group’s image and credibility.

Finally, as far as the smaller groups such as PIJ are concerned, to them the formation of a government of national unity as first step towards elections is functional to increase their capacity of influence and expand their basin of supporters beyond their traditional areas.

 

In conclusion, both considerations linked to the international realm and considerations linked to the Palestinian one have contributed to encouraging the main Palestinian actors to renew attempts at reconciliation. It is now to be seen if these attempts will be translated into concrete actions capable of giving to Palestine the cohesion it needs.

Is Bibi’s political career coming to its end?

The official opening of the investigative process against Netanyahu is the chance to shed light on moves and strategies of the major Israeli political forces in a moment of high uncertainty and fragility  

 

On January 2nd, the visit to the house of the Israeli PM on part of an investigative team of the Anti-Corruption Unit Lahav 433 marked the official beginning of the criminal enquiry against Netanyahu. The talk with the PM lasted three hours and marked the outset of an investigative procedure that that has placed Bibi at the heart of the Israeli public debate.

At this respect, though, it is to be noted that it is not an unprecedented debate, since it is not the first time that a similar episode comes to challenge Israel’s political stability: as early as 1996, in fact, Netanyahu was the first PM to be placed under criminal investigation while in office; after him, it was the turn of Barak and Sharon; and, finally, there was the trial against Olmert, the first PM to be found guilty and sentenced to prison.

 

Last Monday, the criminal investigation against Netanyahu was initiated by the police with the approval of the Attorney General Mandelbit, who had first opened a probe against the PM last June, following alleged proves of corruption raised by the Unit Lahav 433.

To be under investigation are relationships founded on the exchange of gifts and favors that Netanyahu seems to have maintained with various businessmen, both Israeli and foreigner, and that might involve criminal activities and affairs. In particular, the attention of the police is focused on deals for the purchase of arms signed with the German firm ThyssenKrupp and on the relationship between Netanyahu and the French Arnaud Mimran, already condemned for fraud.

 

The above picture was then made even more complex by the news reported by Haaretz according to which the investigation would also involve the tape of a conversation between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes –owner of the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth– in which the two men seem to reach a deal that would grant Mozes financial and business benefits in exchange for a pro-Netanyahu coverage. The deal, that would ensure Mozes primacy within the Israeli media and journalistic system, has caused much scandal because it directly affects the faith of the Israelis in their information system and –more specifically- in Mozes’s newspaper, whose impartiality and independence has always been praised by the Israelis.

 

While the procedure has just entered its first stage and we are still in a phase of speculations, suppositions, and waiting, what is interesting to look at is what the affair reveals on the current reality of Israeli politics and its major actors – Netanyahu, his Likud Party, and the Opposition to it.

 

As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the episode reveals his great capacity (already proven along the years and in the previous periods of ups and downs of his political career) of turning the cards of the Israeli political game in his favor. Faced with the accusations, in fact, Netanyahu promptly admitted having accepted gifts from businessmen with whom he had/has relationships, but stressed that they never went beyond what is legal.

By so doing, Netanyahu effectively presented himself to the Israeli public as the “victim” of a series of accusations that have no foundation and are politically-motivated. With a post on his Facebook page, Netanyahu has thus tried to turn the entire issue on his favor talking of a “persecution” that has been going on for years against him and his family and creating a sense of “discrimination” among his electoral basin – that seems indeed to have rallied around the leader to defend his innocence.

In a delicate juncture, in which Netanyahu’s political future is at stake, the PM has shown great ability in strengthening the consent of his voters; in making them a united front suspicious of all the forces (political and non-political alike) that lie outside the Likud and its ultra-right coalition; and in creating cohesion within the right-wing fringes of the Israeli population. Successfully exploited by Netanyahu, this strategy is worth being given attention as it seems to be the main factor that it is enabling Netanyahu to ride the wave of events rather than being drawn by it.

 

Similar dynamics of “rallying around the leader” are at play even within the Party that Netanyahu leads. Indeed, faced with the accusations raised against Netanyahu and with the risk incumbent upon the party’s prestige and power, even the Likud members traditionally less close to the PM have set aside their personal frictions and made themselves united in the defense of their leader and in labelling as merely “political” the accusations against him. Following the line adopted by Netanyahu himself that shouts at the political machination and plot, ministers such as Tzachi Hanegbi and Miri Regev have depicted the whole process as a “persecution” conceived and carried out by an Israeli left that is trying with all means to end Netanyahu’s government.

 

However, observing the behavior of this final actor of the Israeli political theatre –the Opposition to the extreme right led by Bibi- it emerges interestingly how it is actually maintaining a low profile with respect to the issue and avoiding fierce attacks against the PM.

The logic behind this strategy is the awareness that, in a delicate moment for the country’s political future as this might turn out to be, any reckless move and any hasty word could backfire. It is therefore reckoned to be wiser to wait the unfolding of events before embracing a harsh rhetoric that might risk legitimizing Netanyahu’s claims of a political plot being set up against him. It is thus in the context of this logic that it is possible to explain the caution shown until now by the Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who limited himself to moderate words of criticism towards the PM and who seems determined to wait for the outcome of the affair before moving to the offensive and conducting the final attack against Netanyahu.

 

As of now, Israel finds itself in a situation of nervous waiting, of uncertainty on the PM’s political future, of internal debate on the meaning of the accusations against him; and only the outcome of the investigation will be able to tell what the next moves of the major actros of the Israeli politics will be.