Too many elections, or not enough

Israel and Palestine, the two political communities (if that is the right word) locked in a deadly embrace in the Middle East, display a remarkable contrast in electoral frequency. One has been to the polls four times in two years, with a fifth as a serious possibility; the other is still struggling to hold its first election in more than 15 years.

Last time we looked at Israel, election number four had just returned a parliament broadly similar in shape to the previous three. A very broad and eclectic range of opposition groups won 57 of the 120 seats between them (one more than in the preliminary results – Meretz picked up a seat from the United Arab List in late counting); the forces supporting far-right prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a total of 52. Two parties hold the balance of power between them: Naftali Bennett’s Yamina with seven seats, and the Islamist United Arab List with four.

As the incumbent and leader of the largest single party, Netanyahu naturally got the first opportunity to put together a majority government. Last week, after the allotted 28 days, he had to admit failure. President Reuven Rivlin (whose own term expires in July) then gave the commission to Yair Lapid, leader of the second-largest party, the centrist Yesh Atid. He has promised to negotiate with Bennett to form, rather optimistically, “a government that will reflect the fact that we don’t hate one another.”

Bennett, whose relations with Netanyahu seem to have gotten worse with each stage of the process, sounds amenable, saying that it’s necessary to form “a wide, emergency government that can take the cart out of the mud.” But while this looks the best chance yet for forming an anti-Netanyahu government, its margin for error is small.

Lapid so far has 56 votes with him – one of the Joint List’s MPs refused to come to the party. Bennett notionally adds another seven, but at least one of his MPs is also opposed to collaboration with Lapid. The United Arab List has also promised more vaguely to co-operate with whoever is commissioned; it was willing to back Netanyahu, but another element of his coalition, the fascist Religious Zionism, refused to work with Arabs of any sort.

A Lapid-Bennett government would still have a pronounced lean to the right, which will be a bitter pill for the parties of the left and centre-left (the Joint List, Meretz and Labour) to swallow. It was always likely, however, that getting rid of Netanyahu would require a broad front, and having come this far it makes sense for them to take the final step – especially if the alternative is to get the blame for forcing a fifth election.

Meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, there have been no elections for either president or parliament since January 2006. The election held in that month was a great triumph for democratic participation in difficult circumstances; I called it “inspirational stuff”. But from the Israeli and United States point of view it produced the wrong result: the Islamist Hamas defeated the more secular (but corrupt and authoritarian) Fatah.

They accordingly backed Fatah’s efforts to try to undo the result, effectively fomenting civil war in the territories. After a year and a half of increasingly violent clashes, Hamas established itself in full control of the Gaza strip while Fatah, under president Mahmoud Abbas, regained control of the West Bank. Despite innumerable efforts at reconciliation since then, that remains the situation today.

Abbas’s term expired in 2009, but he has remained in office, and various proposals for new parliamentary and/or presidential elections have come to nothing. In the most recent such plan, leaders of Fatah and Hamas, claiming to have “reached a real consensus,” announced last September that the parliamentary election would be held first, within six months. A subsequent decree set the date for next week, 22 May.

But of course it was not to be. An essential condition, from the Palestinian point of view, was that voting would be possible in occupied East Jerusalem, which the Israeli government regards as Israeli territory. A request to Israel to that effect met with a non-committal response, on the not entirely unreasonable ground that there was no proper Israeli government in being to consider it.

Abbas took that as the excuse he had evidently been looking for to postpone the election indefinitely, with the support of Israel and the US: again, on the basis that it might result in success for Hamas. Peter Beinart was suitably scathing, pointing out that “The Biden administration is uncomfortable with Palestinian democracy for the same reason many Republicans are uncomfortable with American democracy. Because the wrong people sometimes win.”

Since Israel looks like being preoccupied with its own problems for the immediate future, it probably doesn’t matter much what the Palestinians do in the short term. But if the Netanyahu era really is over, then at some point there will be new possibilities for movement on the Palestinian front, and at that point a Palestinian government that had some democratic legitimacy would be a useful thing. Sadly it looks as far away as ever.

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