Palestinians despair over Netanyahu's likely re-election, 4 more years of settlement building

Palestinian officials largely view Benjamin Netanyahu's expected re-election with despair, fearing the Israeli hard-liner's ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could prove lethal to their dreams of a state.

Some in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' circle hold out hope that President Barack Obama will re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and, freed from domestic electoral considerations in his second term, get tougher with Netanyahu on settlements. One aide suggested Europe is ready to jump in with its own peace plan if Washington is not.

But short of trying to rally international opinion, it seems Abbas can do little if Netanyahu wins Tuesday.

Israeli polls indicate that a majority of seats in Israel's 120-member parliament will go to right-wing, pro-settler or Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties, with Netanyahu's Likud the largest among them. Netanyahu could comfortably form a coalition government with these parties, seen as his natural ideological allies.

Even if he adds a centrist party to the mix, he's unlikely to shift course from the pro-settler policies of his current government.

Under Netanyahu, construction reportedly began on nearly 6,900 settlement homes in the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want to set up a state in the three territories.

That's a bit less than what was started by Netanyahu's predecessor, but many of the new homes are deeper in the West Bank, the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said this week. Thousands more apartments are in various stages of planning, Peace Now said, predicting an "explosion" of settlement construction in coming years.

Since 1967, Israel has moved more than half a million of its citizens to the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

The conflict with the Palestinians and the fate of the occupied lands, hotly debated in Israel for decades, were largely missing from Israeli political discourse this campaign season. The centrist Labor Party, which led peace talks with the Palestinians in the past, has shifted almost exclusively to domestic concerns, such as growing income gaps.

A research department in the Palestine Liberation Organization, reviewing Israeli party platforms, concluded that most parties proposed to manage the conflict with the Palestinians, not end it.

"This appears to scorch all hopes for the internationally endorsed two-state solution," the department wrote in an internal memo distributed to Palestinian officials and foreign diplomats.

Abbas aide Mohammed Ishtayeh said he and other senior officials have been watching the Israeli campaign closely.

"The first strong impression is that peace is not on the agenda of the Israeli parties, and it's clear that Netanyahu is winning," he said.

A Netanyahu victory "will be hard for us because it means more and more building in the settlements." he added.

Palestinians believe hopes for their state are slipping further away with each new settlement home, and that partition of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River may soon no longer be possible.

Abbas has warned in a series of meetings with visiting Israeli politicians and mayors in recent months that Netanyahu's policies will force Israelis and Palestinians to live in a single state, said an Abbas aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about closed-door discussions.

"President Abbas warned Israeli party leaders that in the short run, this one state imposed by Netanyahu will be an apartheid state, but in the long run, our grandchildren will ask for equality," the aide said.

Settlements are at the core of the paralysis in peace efforts talks since late 2008. Netanyahu refuses to freeze construction, rebuffing Abbas who says there is no point in negotiating while settlements steadily gobble up more of the occupied lands.

The standoff is likely to continue, though the Palestinians believe their diplomatic leverage has improved.

In November, the U.N. General Assembly recognized a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. The vote, while largely symbolic, affirmed the 1967 frontier which the Palestinians want to be the base line for future border talks. Netanyahu, while willing to negotiate, wont' recognize the 1967 lines as a point of reference and wants to keep all of Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank.

Some Palestinian officials hope Obama will now be tougher with Netanyahu. Palestinians were disappointed in Obama's performance in his first term, with the president seen as having backed down in a showdown with Netanyahu over settlements.

Earlier this week, there were signs of a more assertive president.

An American columnist with close ties to the White House described Obama's disdain for Netanyahu, warning that Israel's relations with the U.S. could suffer if the Israeli government doesn't change its policies. The columnist, Jeffrey Goldberg, quoted the president as saying that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are."

Nabil Shaath, another Abbas aide, said the Obama administration needs to become more assertive.

The Americans "keep talking about negotiations and the need to restart the negotiations," said Shaath. "But what is needed is for the U.S. to pressure Israel to stop settlement activities and to go to real negotiations, to reach an agreement within six months."

Europe might also get more involved, he said. France, Britain and Germany are working on a peace initiative and are trying to get the U.S. on board, he said, adding that "there is nothing written on paper."

Palestinian officials have said they might also try to challenge a Netanyahu-led Israel in other ways, including by seeking war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court over settlement building. However, such a move would likely anger the U.S. and Abbas has not taken any concrete steps in that direction.

While those around Abbas privately agonize over four more years of Netanyahu, many ordinary Palestinians seem indifferent to the outcome of the vote.

Wajdi Sbeih, an electrical engineer from the West Bank town of Ramallah, said he'll watch the results Tuesday night, but won't care much. "The Labor Party came, the Likud came, but when it came to the Palestinians, they all had the same politics," he said.


Laub reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah contributed.