RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian officials believe they can build a stronger case for international pressure on Israel now that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have cruised to re-election by adopting hard-line positions.
In the last days of the hard-fought election Netanyahu ruled out Palestinian statehood under current conditions — despite long-standing assurances to the West that he supports the idea. The two sides appear poised for diplomatic confrontations, but also share an interest in preventing an escalation on the ground. Here's a look at the issues.
WOULD THE PALESTINIANS HAVE PREFERRED NETANYAHU'S CHALLENGER?
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who lost to Netanyahu, had promised to resume talks on Palestinian statehood, in line with what Abbas has described as his central goal. However, Palestinian officials said Wednesday that a narrow Herzog-led coalition — the most Israel's center-left could have expected to achieve with a right-leaning electorate — would have lacked a clear mandate to take risks for peace. With a hamstrung Herzog, the two sides could have gotten bogged down in more talks without results.
WHERE DO NETANYAHU'S STATEHOOD COMMENTS LEAVE ABBAS?
Netanyahu said repeatedly this week that any talk of Israel withdrawing from lands it occupied in 1967 to make room for a Palestinian state is irrelevant because, in his view, Islamic extremists would seize such territory. His remarks were seen as an appeal to his hard-line base, but might make it difficult for him to revert to his previous position — that Israel is willing to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood, but that Abbas is not a partner for peace. Netanyahu has accused Abbas of trying to impose a deal on Israel by inviting international pressure, instead of negotiating in good faith.
Abbas has long argued that Netanyahu was never serious about a partition deal, despite the Israeli leader's assurances to the United States and the European Union. "The world will (now) understand what we have been saying for years," said senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
WHAT IS THE PALESTINIAN STRATEGY?
After two decades of failed U.S.-led negotiations, Abbas has been trying to end Washington's monopoly as mediator. Palestinians argue that the U.S. is unwilling to exert the required pressure on Israel to get a deal, and that the international community must step up its involvement. As part of this strategy, Abbas won U.N. General Assembly recognition in 2012 of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, the territories Israel captured in 1967.
Earlier this year, Palestine joined the International Criminal Court in pursuit of war crimes charges against Israel — though any decision on a possible investigation is now up to the ICC prosecutor.
Erekat said the Palestinians would join more international organizations, calling for broad support. "Now, more than ever, the international community must act," he said.
WILL THIS BRING THE PALESTINIANS CLOSER TO STATEHOOD?
The Palestinians might score tactical points if a Netanyahu-led Israel faces growing international isolation, such as broader support for the fledgling BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. More European states might follow Sweden's lead and recognize a state of Palestine in the 1967 boundaries.
However, an actual state could only be established with Israel's consent. If Netanyahu keeps expanding settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — already home to close to 600,000 Israelis — such a state may soon be impossible to set up. Some argue it's already too late for a partition deal and that a binational state is inevitable.
WILL ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN RELATIONS DETERIORATE?
Despite the expected confrontation in the international arena, Abbas and Netanyahu have a shared interest in preventing violence in the West Bank. In the past, relative stability depended on Abbas' self-rule government surviving financially and Abbas' forces and Israeli troops sharing intelligence about a mutual foe, Hamas. The Islamic militants Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007 and remain a threat to him in the West Bank.
WHAT STEPS CAN ABBAS AND NETANYAHU TAKE?
Earlier this year, Netanyahu punished Abbas for going to the ICC by withholding monthly transfers of more than $100 million in taxes Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians — a decision that pushed the Palestinian Authority closer to collapse. The West has asked Netanyahu to end the freeze, though it's not clear if he will do so, now that the campaign is over.
In the past, Netanyahu proposed trying to create greater prosperity in the West Bank, or an "economic peace," as an alternative to a two-state deal. In recent days, the Israeli military has significantly eased restrictions on West Bankers, lowering the age limits for men eligible for work permits in Israel and allowing older Palestinians to enter Israel without special passes.
Abbas, meanwhile, is under pressure at home to suspend security coordination.
The Palestine Liberation Organization called for such a move earlier this month and is to hold a strategy meeting on Thursday. A senior PLO official, Qais Abu Laila, predicted Wednesday that the security ties with Israel would be cut soon. A final decision is up to Abbas, who in previous crises rejected demands for ending coordination.
WILL THIS CHANGE ABBAS' DOMESTIC STANDING?
The prevailing atmosphere in the West Bank has been one of paralysis and indifference. Abbas has already overstayed his term as president by five years, blaming the ongoing political and geographic split with Hamas, which he says prevents new elections. At the same time, polls suggest most Palestinians no longer believe a state of their own is possible because of settlements. The mood could shift against Abbas if he is perceived as not standing up to Netanyahu.
Laub reported from Jericho, West Bank.
Laub, the chief correspondent in the Palestinian territories, has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1987. Daraghmeh has covered the West Bank since 1996.