Leadership council votes to suspend ties citing Israel’s “non-compliance with its obligations”.
Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – A few metres away from a military checkpoint leading into Ramallah, two Israeli flags are erected on two small billboards above roadsigns, visible to those entering and leaving the city.
For Palestinians, the flags are a reminder of the powers that be, and of the upcoming March 17 election that will determine the next Israeli prime minister.
The nearest ballot box will be open right next door, in the Jewish settlement of Beit El. But here in Ramallah, Palestinians – who cannot vote in the polls – do not think a new Israeli government will change much in their lives.
Talks between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel’s outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu collapsed in last April after nine months of indirect negotiations.
In 2009, Netanyahu outlined his support for a demilitarised Palestinian state in a speech at Bar Ilan University. This week, a statement by his party suggested that he no longer believed that was possible. But a spokesman denied he had backtracked on his earlier position.
Meanwhile, Isaac Herzog, the head of the leading opposition coalition, said he would restart peace talks with the Palestinians were he to become prime minister.
The Labour Party leader promised to introduce “confidence-building” measures, including a freeze on settlement construction, to encourage both sides to return to the negotiating table.
Herzog has peronally met with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in 2014 more times than any other high-ranking or prominent Israeli official. He has been vocal about his support for the peace process, and for dividing the land between Israelis and Palestinians.
I'd rather Netanyahu won in the upcoming elections. At least he is very clear about his stance on peace - that he doesn't want it. The likes of Herzog and Livni will serve as a fig leaf, with no concrete results. Zionism doesn't change if you are from Likud or Labour.
But his vision includes a demilitarised Palestinian state, with Israel retaining control over major settlement blocs and Jerusalem.
“I think it’s a mistake that we already assume it’s over,” Herzog said at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC last December, referring to peace talks. “That’s part of the tragedy that has unfolded in front of our eyes. It is not true. It is possible, absolutely possible still, to make peace with the Palestinians.”
Herzog’s Labour Party gained momentum after aligning with Hatnua, a smaller party led by former justice minister and lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni.
In the latest election poll, Herzog’s alliance, known as the Zionist Union, is poised to win 24 seats in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, three more than Netanyahu’s Likud.
Few Palestinians in the occupied territories, however, believe that much will change for them, regardless of who wins.
“It’s very likely that Netanyahu will be toppled,” said Esmat Mansour, an expert on Israeli affairs.
“This may be a good thing for Palestinians, but the new prime minister, whoever he may be, will not bring about the just solution that they want or deserve.”
Mansour’s view is shared by many other Palestinians. Mutaz Rayan, a 25-year-old construction worker from the village of Deir Jareer near Ramallah, said he believes a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is unlikely, even with a new prime minister.
“I’m not interested in the Israeli elections, nor am I following it closely,” Rayan said. “It doesn’t matter who wins. At the end of the day, we have been under occupation under Likud and Labour, so the occupation will continue irrespective of who wins.”
For many West Bankers, the elections are of secondary importance to the economic crisis currently crippling the territories. In early January, Netanyahu’s government decided to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue belonging to the PA, in response to a Palestinian bid to join the International Criminal Court.
More than 155,000 employees rely on the PA for their livelihood, and many of them have been receiving partial salaries since the crisis began.
“Will the next Israeli premier release the money owed to us? That’s the only thing that concerns me about these elections,” said one PA ministry of public works employee working in Ramallah who requested that his name not be used.
The official PA position is that it does not interfere in internal Israeli matters, including these legislative elections. But there are some signs that Palestinian politicians are secretly rooting for Herzog’s coalition to win, given what they see as the intransigence of the current government headed by Netanyahu.
Earlier this week, PA security forces arrested approximately 50 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad over what an Israeli media report said were Palestinian fears that an attack on Israel would tilt the elections in Likud’s favour.
“Abbas has made it clear that he believes in diplomacy and negotiations,” said Hani al-Masri, a Ramallah-based political analyst. “The way he sees it is, ‘maybe a left-wing government we can negotiate with will be elected’. But even if a Labour-led coalition is put together, it will be closer to the right in its views.”
Other Palestinians believe that talks will still lead to a dead end with a Labour-Hatnua victory, and that the international community will be duped into believing that the new Israeli government is interested in reaching a solution with the Palestinians.
“I’d rather Netanyahu won in the upcoming elections,” said Maisa al-Kadi, who works in the healthcare sector in Ramallah. “At least he is very clear about his stance on peace – that he doesn’t want it. The likes of Herzog and Livni will serve as a fig leaf, with no concrete results. Zionism doesn’t change if you are from Likud or Labour.”