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As Israel votes again, Palestinians still wait their turn

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On Tuesday, Israelis will vote for the fourth time in two years to elect a new government. The bewildering — and, presumably for many Israelis, exasperating — sense of Groundhog Day can be attributed to the country’s complicated coalition politics and the indefatigable will to power of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An ongoing corruption trial and defections of prominent allies have yet to take the wind out of the sails of Israel’s longest serving prime minister.

The three previous votes, beginning in April 2019, saw Netanyahu and his Likud party fail to secure a decisive mandate to assemble a stable governing coalition in the Knesset, or Israel’s parliament. “In vote after vote, the coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that has kept Netanyahu in power for 14 years has fallen short of extending his run,” wrote my colleagues Shira Rubin and Steve Hendrix. This time, they explained, the electoral calculus is all the more convoluted because “two of his former Likud proteges, Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar, lead parties that could drain votes from Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions.”

Though he has cynically reached out to Israel’s Arab citizens — after spending previous election cycles demonizing them — Netanyahu’s most likely path to power would see him form his most right-wing government to date. That would involve the support of Jewish Power, a fringe faction that has its roots in the rabidly racist and militant Kahanist movement, linked to terrorism plots in both the United States and Israel, including the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. Netanyahu helped broker a deal between Jewish Power and another small religious party earlier this year. Their joint ticket could cross the necessary threshold in Israel’s proportional representation voting system and enter the Knesset with a useful number of seats to strengthen a potential coalition led by the wily prime minister.

But it could also cost Netanyahu even more support from U.S. Democrats, whom he antagonized first with his vociferous opposition to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran and then his ironclad embrace of former president Donald Trump. Rival Israeli politicians and their American allies fret that bipartisan support for Israel in Washington may be further eroded if Netanyahu comes back.

For millions of Palestinians, it’s more of a moot point. In the West Bank, where Israel fully governs around 60 percent of the territory, campaign posters dotted the segregated roads that connect myriad Jewish settlements to the rest of the country. The settlers, whose presence in the West Bank is in some instances seen as illegal by certain international observers, comprise perhaps one of the most decisive voting blocs in the battle for the Knesset.

Netanyahu or another right-wing leader may yet fulfill the wishes of many in the settlements and formally annex chunks of territory in the West Bank. Though the move would outrage political elites elsewhere in the Middle East and even some lawmakers in Washington, it may not change much for ordinary Palestinians long accustomed to having their rights subject to the imperatives of Israel’s military occupation.

“Ask any Palestinian and they will tell you the same thing,” Abed Salama, a Palestinian man whose personal ordeal at the whim of Israeli systems of control was the subject of a lengthy recent essay in the New York Review of Books, told Jerusalem-based author Nathan Thrall. “Israel annexed everything already.”

In a settlement factory at Karnei Shomron, dozens of Palestinian workers were responsible for printing out hundreds of millions of party slips that Israelis will use when they cast their ballot Tuesday. Never mind that they themselves can’t vote in an election that decides a government that still rules over virtually every aspect of their lives. “This is the reality,” one worker told the Times of Israel. “We need jobs and we’re fortunate to be able to find some here.”

But, unlike the previous rounds of Israeli elections, Palestinians are preparing for a vote of their own. After a near decade-and-a-half hiatus, the Palestinian Authority will stage legislative elections on May 22, followed by a planned presidential vote in July. The election may help paper over the rift exposed in 2007, when the Islamist political faction Hamas ousted rival officials from the Fatah party, the main secular Palestinian faction, in the Gaza Strip and led to a de facto separation from the Palestinian administration of the West Bank.

The registration of some 93 percent of eligible Palestinian voters may be a sign of public enthusiasm for the elections. “Young Palestinians want change, they want a different life,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza, to the New York Times. “The Israelis are sick and tired of going to elections four times in two years — but we haven’t had elections in 15 years.”

But there are plenty of reasons for cynicism. The Palestinian Authority, led by long-ruling President Mahmoud Abbas, is seen as a failing institution, riddled with corruption, reliant on Israeli and foreign backing, and incapable of achieving its original purpose — that is, to be the political vehicle for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Analysts say Abbas, the head of Fatah, may be allowing the vote only because he sees it as a means to renew his flagging legitimacy. A set of presidential decrees regarding the election have instituted requirements that critics believe stack the deck in favor of Abbas and his preferred candidates. There’s also the possibility that Abbas still opts to scrap the elections altogether.

“Abbas’ authoritarian attempt to keep the party united has backfired, lending credence to members who have long tired of his solitary policymaking and want to break free from his chokehold,” wrote Dalia Hatuqa in Newlines magazine, pointing to a slate of defections from within the Fatah movement. “This is most evident from the internal turmoil between the aging leadership headed by Abbas and the younger generation that has grown weary of the political stalemate and dire economic situation.”

Some Palestinians contend that both elections — the Israeli one and the Palestinian vote in May — reflect a grim shared reality. “The tale of these two elections is not of democracy but of giving the veneer of legitimacy to a system that maintains the supremacy and domination of one people over another,” wrote Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy. “In this reality, Palestinians are stripped of sovereignty and the agency to shape their lives, their futures and the ability to challenge this oppression.”

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