"I’m glad that he won": The surprising Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu's win

Netanyahu's victory was greeted with apathy -- or embrace -- by many Palestinians in the West Bank. Here's why

Published March 20, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Nir Elias)
(Reuters/Nir Elias)

He’s a hawkish right-winger who presided over more than 2,100 deaths in Gaza this summer, campaigned on the promise that he'd prevent a Palestinian state, and swept to victory with the warning that Arab citizens of Israel were “voting in droves.”

But Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection was regarded with apathy by many Palestinians in the West Bank, and some even welcomed the news – albeit as the best of several bad options.

“Under Netanyahu things will deteriorate. But if it can’t get any better, it might as well get worse,” Ahmad, who declined to give his full name, told Salon. His customers, browsing for phone accessories in central Ramallah, agreed. When you’re in the West Bank it doesn’t much matter who’s in the Knesset: settlement expansion, military crackdowns and wars have taken place on the watch of both the left and right, and there’s been realistic progress toward statehood under neither.

“The experience of the Palestinians is clear. Since the assassination of Rabin, nothing in Israeli politics has brought something good,” Huneida Ghanem, the general director of the Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), told Salon. “Time and time again, election after election after election has just brought something worse. Palestinians see this and in their head, they understand that nothing is going to change, that it will just get worse and worse.”

This year, Ghanem said, some did hope that Herzog and Livni had the potential to change things – a wish that only makes Netanyahu’s win even more disappointing. But she also believes that any trust in the pair’s center-left Zionist Union, which until the election’s final hours was billed as a likely winner, is misplaced. The sense is echoed across the West Bank, where most dismiss the Israeli opposition with a laugh, refusing to refer to it as “left wing” in any meaningful sense.

“Netanyahu, Herzog, Lieberman: if anyone from those Zionist parties become prime minister it won't make any difference. They all have the same strategy to fulfill their ideology,” Bassam Shweiki told Salon. A literature enthusiast and activist, Shweiki speaks English with a London twang despite the fact he’s lived most of his life in Hebron. A West Bank city carved up by Israeli settlement enclaves and military closures,  the city barely featured in election campaigns aside from a pro-settlement visit by right-winger Avigdor Lieberman.

“The Zionist ideology says Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people that God promised, so there’s no place for any other nations in the promised land,” Shweiki continued. “The strategy is to hold the peace process without announcing its death, while continuing to establish settlements, demolishing homes, confiscating Palestinian lands and so on, while deceiving the world by saying that there are negotiations.”

Shweiki’s view that expansion is inevitable in Zionism is shared by most in the West Bank, and it’s the reason many are even pleased at Netanyahu’s win. Unlike other leaders, they believe, he won’t obscure that fact, and with policies of occupation laid bare, pressure on Israel for a just solution can only increase.

“Personally I’m glad that he won. This proves to the world that it is Israel and its people that do not want peace,” Amer Khader, a postgraduate nutritionist from Ramallah, told Salon. “His speech was clearly stating that if he wins the Palestinian State will not see the light, that Jerusalem is forever the capital of the state of Israel, and for the continuation of the illegal settlements in the West Bank.

“What’s the worst that can happen? More houses to be taken when more than 2,000 have been demolished in East Jerusalem? Another war on Gaza? It’s already destroyed. More settlements? Let it be. It is just more isolation of Israel through its racist discriminatory apartheid policies.”

The bleak irony in Khader’s view comes from long experience. Even for those Palestinians who are able to vote – those citizens of Israel who make up some 20 percent of its population – the achievements of this election have transpired partly from the country’s right wing shooting itself in the foot.

Last year, Israeli lawmakers raised the electoral threshold, a move supported in part by right-wingers who hoped it would push small Arab parties out of representation altogether. Instead, several Palestinian and left-wing parties banded together to create the Joint List, a broad coalition that won 14 seats and made Arab Israelis the third biggest power in the Knesset. Even as they bemoaned the Knesset’s rightward tilt, its leaders celebrated a new era of Palestinian political involvement on election night.

“I came here to see resistance and to be proud of my community, to get the best for us and to further our aims of two states,” 18-year-old Razi Misherqui, wearing a party T-shirt and draped in a Palestinian flag, told Salon as the results came in. “I think Arab unity is really important and  we can use this to show that we can make change and challenge what’s going on.”

In Ramallah, Ghanem called the Joint List victory the “surprise story” of the election, and it was the only reason that many Palestinians bothered to watch the political news at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s a game-changer. Many Arab Israelis, believing any political activity in the Knesset is doomed to fail, still boycott the elections and even the Joint List’s most ardent supporters are measured in their optimism. Even as he pledged to challenge the consensus of the election, leading Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi bemoaned a “disappointing” result in which the “extreme right-wing got the upper hand.”

And in the West Bank, where Palestinians haven’t been able to vote for their own representation in nearly a decade, hope for any changes the joint list might make is guarded. With peace negotiations bearing only bitter fruit, an occupation with no clear end and a political mood characterized by frustration and extremism, the only sure thing about the path to a solution is that it will be tough.

“Nothing is going to come from the Israeli state if the Israelis don’t feel they don’t pay any price for the Israeli occupation,” Ghanem told Salon. “The last 10 years they’ve been building up this right-wing narrative, this plan for Eretz Israel in the political scene. Things that were once unacceptable to talk about are now part of the hegemonic discourse in Israel. And I’m not talking about buses on Shabbat, I’m talking about fascist, discriminatory policies – the settlement enterprise, the occupation.

“People feel very failed by the international community,” she added. “As they’ve grown older they put so much hope into the peace process. Over the years they’ve tried violence, and that didn’t work; the intifada, and that didn’t work; peaceful resistance, and none of it worked. And then the international community came to them saying if you do this, if you do this, you can have a state. But they've done that, and it’s led nowhere.”

Still, there’s a strong feeling in the West Bank that change from the outside looks more likely than from within the Israeli state. Real international pressure and action, Ghanem said, with a strong stress on the word “real,” is the best hope for statehood. If that’s the case, Khader said, than a Netanyahu win might be a blessing in disguise.

“Netanyahu is the worst for the economy of Israel and its international relations. And the only way Israel will get weaker is through screwing their own relations, which is happening,” he told Salon. “Let it be. It won’t get any better till it is screwed.”

By Bethan Staton

Bethan Staton is a journalist based in Palestine and Israel. Follow her on Twitter at @bthsts.

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