6 min read
Discussing Palestinian Politics with Professor Zelkovitz

This month, Platform was lucky to get a chance to sit down with Professor Ido Zelkovitz to speak with him about recent developments in the Palestinian political arena. Having taken Professor Zelkovitz’s Palestinian politics class, I (Shaya) am familiar with his extensive knowledge of Palestinian politics. Professor Zelkovitz teaches at the University of Haifa, Yezreel Valley College, and IDC Herzliya/ Reichman University and has also written two books on Palestinian politics, Fatah: Islam, Nationalism and Politics of armed struggle and Students and Resistance in Palestine: Books, Guns and Politics.

Platform: Less than a week ago, defense minister Benny Gantz announced that Israel would make a series of conciliatory gestures to help the Palestinian Authority, legalizing the status of around 9,000 undocumented Palestinians (that were in limbo) and giving 100 million NIS in an advance on future tax revenues, in addition to another advance Israel gave in August that was 500 million NIS. Looking back, do you think Israel regrets encouraging the US to cut off aid to the PA?

Professor Zelkovitz: First and foremost, Israel needs to be humble and cannot tell the US what the right policy is for them, although I think there is an understanding in Israel that if they will not strengthen Mahmud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen), they may face more regime change for the Palestinians in the future. We are also living in a period of escalation from the Palestinians and there is a consistent decline in the belief and support of the two-state solution from the Palestinians and particularly from the younger generation. By giving the economic benefits to the PA, Israel is helping them to strengthen their administrative and security political apparatuses. From the Israeli side there is also an understanding that the current situation in Palestinian politics between Fatah and Hamas is also here to stay and so Israel wants to make this environment more sustainable. This rivalry between these two competing entities (Fatah and Hamas) is working to the short term benefit of Israel. If there is ongoing tension with the Gaza strip and assuming it's only a matter of time until we enter another round of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, then Israel must use its capabilities to secure and calm the situation in the West Bank. That's why we saw this meeting between Abu Mazen and Benny Gantz and that's why Israel is continuing to transfer money to the Palestinian government and make civil and political concessions to the Palestinian Authority. For example, we just mentioned that there were around 9,000 people that were given legal status and this gesture is important not only on a political but on a humanistic level that may improve the image of Israel in Palestinian eyes.

Platform: So you’re saying that Israel’s transferring of the money was not only done with a financial motivation (to fund the Palestinian Authority capabilities) but also with a political motivation to show the Palestinian street that the PA can deliver Israeli concessions/gestures?

Professor Zelkovitz: From a political standpoint it is very important. I also think that it is very important to understand that from the context of Israeli domestic politics Benny Gantz wants to gain credibility from the center-left “peace camp” voting bloc. Because there is a big competition between the parties of kachol v'lavan (Blue and White) and Labor parties for this vote share, Benny Gantz wants to protect his authority and interest as the leader of the Israeli center-left and the successor of Yitzhak Rabin and the only one who can be trusted to deliver a two state solution. So, from Benny Gantz’s point of view it's a win-win situation, he protects Israel’s security needs and gains positive political publicity as the leader of those center-left voters.

Platform: It is no secret that Abbas is obviously very unpopular against many Palestinians in both Gaza and now the West Bank. How likely is it that there could be an effort that could overthrow Abbas and install a new Palestinian government in the West Bank?

Professor Zelkovitz: I don't see a scenario where that happens because of two facts. First off, it's not a secret that the West Bank is really controlled by Israel and Israel wants a stable political sphere there. In the case of a Palestinian civil war, it will also affect Israel’s interest and it will interfere. Secondly, one great success of Mahmud Abbas as the leader of the PA is that Abu Mazen managed to build a very strong security forces (by Palestinian not Israeli standards) that are very organized and loyal to the President, even if they are not very popular. The Palestinians also know they have a lot to lose if there will be a civil war. They will lose from an economic perspective because any conflict will worsen Palestinian economic issues and from a human perspective they already know a bit what a Palestinian civil war could look like from the clashes in the 2000’s. Furthermore, although Israeli politicians often say that Abbas is seen as an illegitimate leader and that Hamas is close to overthrowing Abu Mazen, neither Hamas or the Islamic Jihad have comparable military capabilities to the PA in the West Bank. The Palestinian security forces discover and deal with them well and as I said before they have the help of Israel so Abbas can sleep comfortably.

Platform: Abbas is quite old and it is only a matter of time and probably not a long time, until he's no longer leading the Palestinian Authority. Who do you think is most likely to replace him?

Professor Zelkovitz: No one knows. There is no one who is considered as the natural successor to Abbas and Abbas did this on purpose. He tried to reshape Palestinian politics according to his needs. Muhammad Dahlan was marginalized by him and was thrown out by Fatah, causing a split between Fatah in the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Marwan Barghouti who is the most popular alternative is currently jailed in Israel, making him unable to be an effective leader and anyway I think he is popular because he is in jail in Israel. Jibril Rajoub who is considered as one of the strongest potential replacements in Fatah, who is number 3 in Fatah and considered very strong and accepted inside Fatah is also today not a really acceptable in Israeli circles, since he is one of the Fatah leaders closest to Hamas and even though he is one of the leaders that is most popular with the Palestinian street, I don’t know if he can replace Abbas. Fatah is a maze and one thing for sure is that we don't really know who can replace him. It’ll need to be someone that everyone can agree on and lead Fatah into another election, we will start to see Fatah stabilize the Palestinian political arena and so because the question of the successor still hasn’t been dealt with Fatah doesn’t want to hold elections.

Platform: Right and they called off the most recent elections in 2005 and even though they blamed the canceling of elections on Israel, we didn't see much of a push back from Israel that said, “no, it's your fault [Abu Mazen] and correct them”.

Professor Zelkovitz: They are lucky they have Israel in their corner and Israel isn't the only one to blame. If they cannot take control of their own destiny and run their political system and bridge political debate in a civil manner and resort to political violence towards one another, they can't blame Israel for all their problems.

Platform: Absolutely, it is interesting that you mentioned earlier that the successor will need to be someone that everyone can agree on, Palestinians (as their leader) and Israel (to continue to coordinate/cooperate with Fatah) but also within Fatah itself. I think within the Palestinian authority there’s a divide between those who are in favor of violent struggle, like Marwan Barghouti or Jibril Rajoub and other Palestinians who realize that violence won’t solve anything and there is a need for some security coordination with Israel, that’s the tricky part, to find someone that not only appeals to Israel and the Palestinians but also to both branches of Fatah itself.

Professor Zelkovitz: Without creating unification within Fatah, they will not go to elections. Fatah is very connected to the Palestinian street and knows not to go to elections now.

Platform: It is said that a very high percentage (around 90%) of Palestinians would like to see reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Over the years this potential unification has resurfaced at different times only to fall apart once again. Is there a real tangible possibility of Fatah and Hamas coming together or is this all for show?

Professor Zelkovitz: Hamas doesn't just want to run for elections in the West Bank and Gaza strip, Hamas wants to replace Fatah as the leaders of the Palestinian national movement. In order to do so they are asking Fatah to open the gates of the PLO in front of them until they will find the formula that will allow them to take over the PLO and until Hamas takes over the PLO completely, the rivalry between the two sides will continue. There is no real will for Fatah to integrate Hamas into the PLO institutions and I also think there is bad blood between the two movements from the memories of the violent clashes of 2017.

Platform: Given that much of the Palestinian identity is defined by the shared feeling of diaspora or exile, how much of an influencing role does the Palestinians living across the world; have on the PA at home? And are they usually more radical or less?

Professor Zelkovitz:Since the days of the 1st intifada in 1988, this gap between Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza strip to their relatives in the diaspora is getting wider and wider. Also the Palestinians in the diaspora don't all live in the same conditions. Palestinians living in the West, in countries in Europe and in the US live differently from those living in Lebanon. Being a refugee living in Manhattan isn't such a curse. For example, take Edward Said who was teaching at Columbia, likely lead a more comfortable life than those living in Lebanon. So therefore the Palestinian community in the diaspora cannot be considered as one entity. Palestinians in the west have often been more “integrated” and received citizenship and the majority of Palestinians living in the US are already citizens and grow up as Americans and receive a great American education in a great university. So, they can afford to be radicalized because they are enjoying the benefits of democracy and they don't live in the same tense and hard conditions as their brothers and sisters living in refugee camps in places like Lebanon and Syria, so they can afford to have more radical views. For example, Mahmud Abbas is working with Israel to combat BDS to protect Palestinian economic interests.

Platform: There were rumors that when SodaStream was shut down a few years ago from BDS pressure, most of the workers who lost their jobs were Palestinian. Often these kinds of measures actually affect Palestinians disproportionately.

Professor Zelkovitz: Yes, they are harming the Palestinian economy.

Platform: It's interesting that you think that when Palestinians in the diaspora have a more comfortable standard of living, they are usually more radical. Because one could say, that you could be inclined to say the opposite: “because they are comfortable and suffering less they would be less radical not more. But I think it's a great point that when you're radical it gives you more room to be radical when you're living in Western countries, then when you're living closer to Israel, because Palestinians living in the Gaza strip have to deal with the consequences of Israeli responses to those radical policies, such as having their home blown up or sitting in jail, whereas those in the US can afford to be radical because those outcomes will not affect them in the same way.

Professor Zelkovitz: Definitely.

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