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What Netanyahu’s election victory means for the Palestinians

Palestinians wave their national flag and the flag of the Fatah movement in front of Israeli security forces during a march protesting the building of Jewish settlements on March 17 near the West Bank town of Abu Dis. (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist Likud party won a surprise victory in national elections on Tuesday, overcoming the strong challenge of an alliance of center-left parties. Netanyahu can't rest on his laurels, though: After forming a new coalition government, he will have to address the economic grievances that animated the election and led to a turnout of nearly 72 percent of eligible voters, the highest since 1999.

Netanyahu won the election by focusing on other issues — namely, Israel's security. As early polls suggested he was heading to defeat, Netanyahu wooed voters from Israel's far-right. On Monday, he declared there would be no independent Palestinian state under his watch. On Tuesday, as voting centers opened, he urged his supporters to head out in order to counter supposed "droves" of Israeli Arabs voting in the election. That scare tactic seemed to work.

[Netanyahu sweeps to victory in Israeli election]

To one constituency living under Israeli rule, the message of the election was stark. "Israel chose the path of racism, occupation and settlement building," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, "and did not choose the path of negotiations and partnership between us."

More than 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have no place in Israel's electoral system and are allowed no say in an election whose outcome has direct implications for their future.

They "can perhaps vote for their 'community council,' the Palestinian Authority," writes leftist Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, "but they can’t participate in the real game, the one that seals their fate."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to form a new governing coalition quickly after an upset election victory that was built on a shift to the right. (Video: Reuters)

Israel's Palestinian citizens, who make up some 20 percent of the Israeli population, voted in larger numbers than in previous elections. The Joint List, a bloc of Israeli Arab parties, will command 14 seats in the Knesset — a significant presence that offers a small glimmer of hope to their brethren in the Palestinian territories.

But Netanyahu's victory — and the racially tinged rhetoric he used to secure it — reinforces Palestinian convictions that there is no hope for the long-mooted two-state solution, the plan officially endorsed by the United States, the U.N. and a succession of Israeli governments. There was also little optimism among Palestinians before the elections that a Netanyahu defeat would mean anything substantially different.

"It's going to be business as usual," said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in an interview with The Washington Post. "Palestinians know that any Israeli government will continue with settlement construction, with the blockade of Gaza."

In the past, Palestinians would follow the fortunes of moderate Israeli political parties. But now "they do not see a viable peace camp in Israel," Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian activist and author, writes in the Guardian. He goes on:

The big parties in Israel may pay lip service to the two-state solution — which remains the strategic position of the Palestinian Authority — but what they are willing to do to make this possible falls far below the minimum that would be acceptable to the Palestinians. None propose the dismantling of settlements or the sharing of Jerusalem as the joint capital of the two states.

The continued occupation of the West Bank and the unresolved status of the Palestinian territories were non-issues for most of the Israeli election campaigns. Netanyahu's Likud party focused instead on the more distant threat of Iran and fears over Islamic State infiltration. Some of Netanyahu's main allies, including far-right politician Naftali Bennett, have already dismissed the idea of there ever being an independent Palestine.

"I think Abu Mazen has come to realize that there is no peace process any longer and that bilateral negotiations will never work with Israel," said Buttu, using another name for Abbas.

That's why the Palestinian Authority has in recent years turned to international forums to put pressure on Israel. It has won admission to a number of U.N. bodies, official recognition from a host of Western governments, and may even try to take Israel to the International Criminal Court over its construction of settlements in the West Bank, which is considered a violation of international law.

The international community "must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom," said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, in a statement after it became clear Netanyahu would return for a historic fourth-term as prime minister.

The Palestinians believe they have no other recourse at this point. "First and foremost, there are very severe policies of separation. Israelis just don't see Palestinians,"  Buttu said. "Israel has not had to pay a price for occupation."

In the past year, international dissatisfaction with Netanyahu has grown; in Europe, in particular, calls for boycotting and placing sanctions on Israel have become more mainstream.

"Israel needs to be isolated internationally," tweets Palestinian-American analyst Yousef Munayyer, "and there is no better leader to take them down that path than Netanyahu."

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