The political leadership in the Palestinian Authority followed with great interest the Israeli Labor Party primaries in July. The Palestinian political elite know the intricacies of Israeli politics inside out. They are familiar with the first and last names of members of the Shas Party and Yisrael Beitenu. With the exception of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties and the left-wing Meretz Party, the Palestinian leadership sees only minor shades of difference amid Israeli politicians. The two last Israeli leaders whom the Palestinians respected were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres during the Oslo process.
There were other Israeli politicians with whom the Palestinians maintained positive policy dialogues: former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, former Minister Tzipi Livni and former Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, for instance. Amid the current Israeli Cabinet, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon is considered by the Palestinians as the only pragmatic member. A senior PLO official who follows Israeli politics feverishly on behalf of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas characterizes the Israeli Knesset as “100 shades of occupation.”
The senior PLO official told Al-Monitor that the Palestinians were disappointed with the defeat of former Labor Party chair Herzog at the party’s primaries. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he noted that “[newly elected Labor chairperson] Avi Gabbay seems like an honest man of peace. Our problem is with the Netanyahu government. Without a change in the composition of the government, there is no chance to translate the regional momentum created by President Donald Trump into a two-state solution process.”
The official admitted that they, and Egypt, were frequently in contact with former Labor leader Herzog and had reason to believe that a political castling move between him and Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi party was in the cards. In other words, advancing a negotiation process would force Bennett’s party to quit the government and encourage Herzog to replace him. That would have allowed for a US-led, regionally backed negotiation process. Now that this option is probably off the table, Abbas has instructed his officials to create a fallback position to the US-led process. Messages have gone out to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron regarding a possible United Nations Security Council resolution on terms of reference for a two-state solution, to induce Washington to act after all.
The PLO official explained that given the improved relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, the Palestinian leadership is also communicating with Moscow. More so, the pragmatic Sunni countries — Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — are the key to a successful Palestinian diplomacy.
Yet these moves of contacts and exchanges with Europe, Russia and the Sunni states are mostly of a tactical nature. They are designed to exert pressure on Trump to initiate a regional anti-terror and Israeli-Palestinian negotiation framework. The PLO official who is also part of the ongoing contacts with US presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt believes that the Trump administration is still intending to launch such an initiative. According to him, the Trump team is well-aware of the obstacles on the road to negotiations, given the composition and nature of the current Netanyahu government.
The official said that Ramallah is encouraged on the matter because of two factors. The first is the willingness of Kahlon to back a negotiation process, positioning himself on the moderate side of the government. Indeed, Kahlon has been meeting periodically with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Second, Ramallah has been receiving hints that Netanyahu may now offer former Foreign Minister Livni the same position again, in return for the support of the Hatnua Party’s five Knesset members. Netanyahu’s change of heart, according to Ramallah, is related to the change of leadership within the Israeli Labor Party. And so, Livni will be offered the position, which was intended by Netanyahu for Herzog.
Much soul-searching and wishful thinking are taking place in Ramallah. In Jerusalem, on the other hand, there is a mood of realpolitik. A senior Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs official who is well-aware of the US diplomatic effort and the Palestinian positions told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu is very encouraged by what he perceived as a new Trump-Putin axis. Netanyahu believes this will play into Israel’s hands in terms of gradually curbing Iran’s regional ambitions in southern Syria and in terms of keeping the European Union out of a regional peace process. “The Quartet and its reports are probably dead,” said the official with great satisfaction. He added that Abbas has failed in weakening Hamas (by cutting off funding, especially for Gaza’s electricity). In fact, Egypt, with the encouragement of Abbas’ nemesis Mohammed Dahlan, is coming to Hamas’ help in the Gaza Strip, probably in return for relative stability in the Sinai Peninsula.
The official also said that Israel does not underestimate the pragmatic Arab countries’ pressures on Washington to initiate peace negotiations, yet at this point Netanyahu has the upper hand and is convinced that Israel will succeed in preventing any two-state solution process.
Indeed, Jerusalem is following the domestic Palestinian scene with the same curiosity as the Palestinians as they watch Israel’s. Israel actually came to the same conclusion that Ramallah did — that the other side is a “hopeless case.” They may both be right.