It was a rough week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He saw his main opponents join forces and the Blue and White Party that resulted from this merger surpassed Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the polls. If that wasn’t enough, Netanyahu’s decision to encourage one of his coalition partners to take in a party whose leaders are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane set off a storm of criticism from Jews who felt he was wrong to help legitimize an extremist group.
But while Netanyahu has been taking it on the chin, the man that much of the world still imagines is Israel’s peace partner seems to have had a very good week. And the explanation for that unexpected development is the reason why Netanyahu’s prospects for holding on to his office are not quite as gloomy as his detractors may think.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is currently serving the 15th year of the four-year term as president of the P.A., to which he was elected in January 2005. He is widely reviled by most of those whom he pretends to serve. The same is true for his steadfast refusal to negotiate peace with Israel. The kleptocracy over which the 83-year-old presides is a disgrace. He refuses to make peace with Israel, but is also dependent on security cooperation with the Jewish state.
But Abbas’s popularity is suddenly soaring. In the last year, both the United States and Israel have enacted measures to cut back on cash flowing to his regime in order to force him to end the practice of rewarding those who attack, wound and kill Israelis, Jews and Americans with salaries and pensions.
Last week, Israel tried to force Abbas’s hand on the issue of his pay-to-slay policy by deducting some $138 million from the tax revenue that it collects and then transfers to the P.A. But the Palestinian leader refused to budge. To the contrary, he vowed never to accept a single penny of the money Israel hands over to his government so long as any of it was held back.
In theory, this ought to have generated a revolt from ordinary Palestinians, who shouldn’t want the minimal services the P.A. performs for them to be impacted for the sake of terrorists. But it has had the opposite effect.
Palestinian social media is buzzing with praise of his stand. Outside of Gaza, whose people are being starved and squeezed by Abbas’s efforts to pressure his Hamas rivals that govern the strip, there’s every sign that his stand is widely applauded by most Palestinians who agree with his decision to keep funding “martyrs.”
To some extent, this is a familiar game of “chicken” that Israel’s government and Abbas have been playing for years. Neither Netanyahu nor Abbas wants to abandon the security cooperation that both keeps a lid on terrorism (if not eradicating it) and protects the P.A. leader and his cronies from Hamas. Israel doesn’t want the P.A. to collapse, which would force it to directly rule Palestinians in the West Bank, and Abbas and the rest of his corrupt gang that profits from his rule don’t want the flow of cash to their families and foreign bank accounts to cease.
But however this standoff is resolved, it goes a long way to explaining what’s been happening prior to the Israeli April elections.
Netanyahu is facing potential political doom because unlike the last three elections which he won, he isn’t facing off against an opponent that is easily labeled a “leftist” willing to make concessions to the Palestinians in the vain hope of peace. The Israeli left has been marginalized. Instead of a party of peace advocates, who can be pilloried for their naïveté, the alternative to the Likud is a party led by a trio of former generals.
Netanyahu and his allies are accusing the Blue and White—and its leader, Benny Gantz—of being leftist peaceniks flying under false centrist colors. Maybe there’s some truth to that argument, as Gantz will likely have to ally himself to the left in order to form a government. But since it counts among its leaders figures like former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who is arguably to the right of Netanyahu, that charge may not stick. Whatever you may think of the new party, its rise, coupled with the collapse of the left, stand as testimony to the post-Oslo era sea change in Israeli politics.
Who created that change? For all his tactical cleverness and sure governing skills, it wasn’t Netanyahu. The person who ensured that the Israeli public would draw conclusions from the last 25 years and to essentially give up on the notion of the Palestinian Authority as a peace partner is none other than Abbas. Had he really been different from his terrorist predecessor, longtime PLO chief Yasser Arafat, it’s conceivable that Netanyahu might have been in the opposition during the last decade.
But by sticking to the language of conflict with Israel and Zionism that is inextricably tied to the sense of Palestinian national identity that Arafat and Abbas fostered, the P.A. has ensured that most Israelis have stopped believing that peace is an option in the foreseeable future. Gantz is giving Netanyahu a run for his money because much of the Israeli public sees no real difference between their stands on the peace process. If, after staying too long in office, Netanyahu still has a decent chance of leading the next government, it’s because a critical mass of Israelis think the coalition of parties of the center and the right that he leads is the only government that can be trusted to deal with a P.A. leader that continues to financially reward terrorism.
Abbas may enjoy his popularity, but if his people actually wanted peace and a two-state solution, they wouldn’t be applauding his intransigence. Until something shifts, Israeli politics will continue to be a battle in which the parties of the left haven’t got a chance.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.