Palestinian hopes don't lie in Israel's election, but in America 2020

Palestinian hopes don't lie in Israel's election, but in America 2020

Comment: Trump has emboldened Netanyahu's right-wing agenda. A change of leadership in US politics is needed to make a real difference for Palestinians, writes Sophia Akram.
5 min read
11 Sep, 2019
Trump has embraced Netanyahu's vicious policies towards Palestinians [Getty]
Snap legislative elections in the Knesset are upon us, and this year the democratic process has certainly proven eventful

Incumbent prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to command a majority in April's poll, and was subsequently jilted by fellow right-winger Avigdor Lieberman who refused to join a coalition with the Likud party premier. In addition, an array of corruption allegations have marred Netanyahu's campaign, and there's barely been time to ask what any of this means for Palestinians.

But for anyone willing to indulge the question, the answer spells little more than a bleak message.

On 4 September Amnesty International issued a 22-page report detailing the diminishment of Arab voices in the Knesset, with Palestinians being targeted by discriminatory measures.

In 2016 for example, a legislative amendment made it possible for Members of the Knesset (MK) to expel other elected members by a majority vote. That made any MK expressing a peaceful opinion not accepted by the majority very vulnerable.

One Palestinian MK described it as a "sword dangled over our heads by members of the Knesset who oppose us politically". Such curtailment of these representatives' freedom of expression impacts their ability to defend Palestinian rights in Israel.

This adds to the already systematic disenfranchisement of Palestinians living in Israel, and why many of them choose to boycott the elections.

Palestinians may hold little hope for outcomes in the Knesset, the US is where a real impact could happen

In addition, 2.7 million of their neighbours in the West Bank do not have the right to vote in these elections, and in any case, candidates offer them little different to the current administration.

Previously, within the increasingly right-leaning government there had been one meagre sliver of resistance - pressure from the international community to ease settler expansions, denounce them as illegal and in the case of former US President Barack Obama's administration, downsize military aid.

That pressure however, has ceased since Donald Trump took office. Breaking with decades of US policy, America moved its Israel mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising it as Israel's capital, a blow to peace negotiations in the region.

This move, in May 2018, along with other US policies including cutting Palestinian aid, has been a green light for Israel to ramp up its policies to change the demographics of Jerusalem.

Evictions and demolitions have taken place at record rate. Israeli NGO B'Tselem recorded 112 demolitions of houses built without permits, often erected because of severe overcrowding in Palestinian areas, in 2019 up to 31 July.

That compares to 57 throughout the whole of 2018. Then there was the unprecedented demolition of dozens of legally built buildings because they were deemed too close to the security barrier. Think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) also reported that Israel was advancing new policies to entrench its de facto annexation of parts of occupied East Jerusalem, noting that what once seemed impossible, now seems possible and has emboldened far-right elements to act.

While Palestinians may therefore hold little hope for outcomes in the Knesset, the US is where a real impact could originate. Which is why it's the US elections next year in 2020 that will really matter.

In a crowded field of Democratic candidates, the question of which holds the brightest future for Palestinians is a pertinent one. Most Democratic candidates will try to walk a middle line, balancing the challenge of distancing themselves from right-wing Netanyahu in order to appeal to pro-Palestinian elements, without wanting to alienate the pro-Israel camp.

Pew Research poll in 2016 showed that only 27 percent of Democrats sympathise more with Israel than with Palestinians. For Republicans, however that figure is at a whopping 79 percent.

However, among the Democratic frontrunners, there are those who have been more vocal on Israel's human rights abuses, and those who have preferred to cosy up to AIPAC.

Sanders has made Israel-Palestine central to his foreign policy

Kamala Harris for instance has faced criticism for meeting with AIPAC members, even though she joined other Dems including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg in declining to attend the American Israeli lobby group's conference this year.

The latter three have also issued words of condemnation and shown frustration at Netanyahu's destructive actions. This includes almost an about-face from Elizabeth Warren, who asked for restraint to be shown against demonstrators in Gaza amid the Great March of Return protests that have been taking place in the occupied Strip. Previously she had supporting Israel's right to defend itself, including against Hamas rockets.

Sanders has made Israel-Palestine central to his foreign policy while Buttigieg, who iterates his support for Israel at every turn, likes to see himself as a progressive. This might mean his supporters could hold some sway in lobbying the youngest candidate to hold Israel to account, something he said he was not above doing.

All of these candidates have also opposed the anti-BDS bill, which was passed earlier in the year, on the ground of freedom of expression, and support the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu desperately opposes, showing they are not above drawing rebuke from Israel's incumbent leadership.

The question now however, is how these candidates might approach the damage done by the Trump administration as the embassy has already moved, aid has already been cut and they won't have a choice of which government they have to deal with in Israel.

But at the very least, the Democratic candidates give us hope they might obstruct the lurch towards a reality where Palestinians no longer have a homeland, especially at a time when such humble ambitions feel so painfully distant.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.