The chances of an earnest dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians under Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister were already dismal. Yet the ascension of Naftali Bennett, his protege at one time, has given Palestinian intellectuals more reasons to worry.
While most expect him to be just as bad as Netanyahu, others say he would carry out his agenda to expand illegal settlements even more vigorously.
Some hope he might cower under pressure from the Biden administration and turn out to be pragmatic.
A staunch supporter of Jewish settlements and of the annexation of most of the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem, Bennett also opposes a two-state solution to the conflict.
At first glimpse, there appears to be little difference between him and his predecessor. Both are opposed to the resumption of any form of the peace process that may force them to make room for the aspirations of the Palestinians.
Netanyahu, known by his nickname “Bibi”, even plotted together with the Trump administration to kill the idea of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine when the United States relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to the city with holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
But the rise of hardliner and hyper-nationalist Bennett to the position of prime minister could be more dangerous, said Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor and chairman of the department of political science at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip.
“Netanyahu expanded settlements but he also froze them back in 2009 and 2010 after pressure from [former US President Barack] Obama,” said Abusada.
“The difference between Netanyahu and Bennett is that Netanyahu, as we have seen, can buckle under international pressure. Also, he seemed flexible on the two-state solution. Sometimes he would say he was ok with it. Bennett has a much more ideological and tougher stand.”
‘Definitely worse than Netanyahu’
Bennett earned his stripes as a politician by aggressively backing illegal Israeli settlements. A sudden climb down from his stand would infuriate his far-right backers in the country, some of whom are already describing him as “a traitor” for joining a coalition with centrists, leftists and Arabs.
Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Palestinian National Initiative political party, said he expects Bennett to be worse than Netanyahu from the Palestinian perspective.
“Bennett advocated clustering Palestinians in Areas A and B, which is only 38 percent of the West Bank, and annexing the remaining 62 percent which is Area C,” said Barghouti, referring to the three-way division of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the Oslo Accords signed in 1995.
“Continuing settlements in Area C means the assassination of the possibility of a two-state solution. He is definitely worse than Netanyahu.”
Some, however, dare to hope that a multi-party, multi-ideology coalition that Bennett is now heading will impose checks and balances on his policies.
Last week, Netanyahu was defeated by a razor-thin margin of one in the confidence vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But the coalition that has removed him is seen to be extremely fragile.
But the Yesh Atid centrist party, left-wing Meretz party, as well as for the first time the Palestinian United Arab List (Ra’am) are also parts of the unwieldy coalition.
Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) who specialises in Gulf politics and security. He said there was a big question mark on how long this coalition survives, and what sort of political plans it proposes.
“What kind of consensus this weird government can adopt, that is the big question,” said Guzansky. “Usually when you have different parties with different ideologies in a government they have a lowest common denominator that unites them. In this case, it was the consensus to oust Bibi. But Bennett faces many challenges.”
Guzansky said the new prime minister’s next challenge is whether he would dismantle the Evyatar settlement outpost, south of Nablus in the West Bank.
“It was illegally built under Israeli law and is to be dismantled. We will have to see what Bennett would do about it,” he said. “Also there is a Bedouin settlement in the Negev desert. If he would take that apart then he might have problems with his Arab allies.”
Guzansky said he believes Bennett might turn out to be pragmatic on tensions with the Palestinians.
Bennett, without flinching, allowed the flag march by Jewish nationalists through Jerusalem. It was seen as a grave provocation by the Palestinians especially since clashes between Israel and Hamas last month barely just ended.
But no clashes were reported on the ground. In response to the march, however, Hamas floated incendiary balloons into southern Israeli cities and Israel launched air strikes. But there was no loss of life.
‘Even more forcefully’
There are myriad irreconcilable differences between different members of the coalition. But the Arab members would have little influence on Israel’s policies and no one else in the coalition is expected to go out on a limb for the sake of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Barghouti described any expectations of the centrist or the leftists standing up for Palestinians as naive. He recounted the moment when last week Bennett reiterated his vision of continuing settlements in Area C.
“We did not hear anyone from Meretz or the centrists to say they disagreed. They were present in the Knesset. That can only mean one thing – this government will carry on with the policy of illegal settlements, perhaps even more forcefully.”
Bennett’s toughest enemy would be the Biden administration, which has already asked for a freeze on illegal settlements. It is soon to open a consulate for Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem and is expected to push Israel to return to the table for peace talks.
While some Palestinian thinkers are not ready to give up on Biden, others such as Barghouti fear Bennett might secure the US’s inaction on the Palestinian issue by tacitly supporting the resumption of the Iran-US nuclear deal.
“Iran deal will happen at the expense of the Palestinian issue,” said Barghouti. “But we will not stay quiet.”
Since the clashes last month, the Palestinian resistance has indeed picked up pace and a new generation of activists seem determined to save their homes and the land of their ancestors, too.
Bibi or Bennett, Palestinians say, their resistance will continue.