Zaha Hassan is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A human rights lawyer, her research focus is on Palestinian-Israeli peace, the use of international legal mechanisms by political movements, and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Previously, she was the coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine’s bid for United Nations membership. She was also a member of the Palestinian delegation to Quartet-sponsored exploratory talks between 2011 and 2012. Diwan spoke to Hassan this week, after the Israeli elections, to get her perspective about what happened, particularly her views of the Palestinian reaction to the electoral process and outcome.
Michael Young: Had Benny Gantz won Israel’s election, do you thing it would have made a major difference?
Zaha Hassan: While there may have been some significant differences between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party platform and that of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party on domestic issues, there was little daylight when it came to Israeli security issues and the treatment of Palestinians living without rights under Israeli military occupation. Netanyahu has shown that he has no intention of withdrawing from the West Bank and seeing the emergence of a Palestinian state. Gantz would have taken the same position in any government he formed.
The major difference between Netanyahu and Gantz relates to Netanyahu’s campaign promise to annex the greater part of the West Bank. Gantz’s preference would have been to maintain the status quo in an effort to avoid the international opprobrium associated with annexation. Gantz would have been concerned with the idea of Israel ruling over Palestinians in the occupied territories and what that would do to Israel’s claim that it is a Jewish and democratic state. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has had no problem cozying up to fascist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe and in Latin America for support of his brand of ethnonationalism.
MY: From the perspective of Palestinians in the occupied territories, what did the Israeli elections represent?
ZH: Palestinians in the occupied territories are not as concerned about Israeli elections as they are about the international reaction to them. A different Israeli coalition government would not change anything in the daily lives of Palestinians. Israeli settlements will continue to expand around them and checkpoints will remain, along with movement and access restrictions.
All attention, however, is on the United States to see to what extent it will provide political cover for Israel’s expansionist tendencies. Sitting before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to answer whether or not the U.S. would recognize Israeli sovereignty over the settlements in the occupied West Bank. All that Pompeo would confirm was that under the Trump peace plan, Palestinians would have a better quality of life—as opposed to self-determination and human rights. This is deeply concerning because it essentially means that Washington will countenance the imposition of two separate legal regimes in the occupied territories—one for Jews and one for Palestinians. This is the textbook definition of apartheid and the United States should not be seen as sanctioning crimes against humanity.
MY: Was it a mistake for many Palestinian citizens of Israel to boycott the elections?
ZH: Palestinian citizens of Israel were of two minds on the election. Many of them believed that it would legitimize a government that had effectively told them that they were not part of Israeli society. This is the message they got from the passage of the Jewish Nation State Basic Law which defines Israel as a Jewish state and affirms that only Jews are entitled to self-determination in the country.
Other Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, believed it was important to participate in elections, as flawed as they were—for example parties calling for equality between Jews and non-Jews are banned. For these citizens, only through Palestinian participation in the Knesset would there have been an opportunity to call out discriminatory legislation and draw the attention of Israeli society and the world to what is taking place in Israel. Each of these perspectives is legitimate.
MY: Do you foresee an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, and if so what would the consequences be?
ZH: I believe we will see Israeli annexation of at least 60 percent of the West Bank, perhaps more. Netanyahu promised that no settlement would be uprooted and that he would annex the settlements after the election. His ability to sidestep the looming criminal charges against him require that he make good on this campaign pledge. The small ultranationalist parties with which he made a pact will only support legislation giving him immunity from prosecution if he does so. The Likud has already called for annexation of the West Bank. With the ultranationalists, who also advocate for the ethnic cleansing of Israel and the occupied territories of Palestinians, there is little reason to believe we won’t see Israel extend its sovereignty to the settlements.
MY: Some supporters of Israel are saying that it is time to declare an Israeli victory over Palestinians. Does such an approach have a chance of succeeding?
ZH: The victory they are taking about is to unilaterally impose a solution upon Palestinians outside of an agreement based on international law and benefiting from an international consensus. That has effectively been achieved these last 51 years of Israeli military rule over Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It is difficult to see how the rest of the world will abide and recognize the formalization of Israeli rule over Palestinians given the ramifications for international legitimacy and institutions. The kind of victory Israelis really seek is normalization. That will remain elusive internationally, particularly with the Arab states.