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Election Politics Amid Israeli-Palestinian Violence

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israelis and Palestinians are locked in the worst violence in years. Night after night, the sky over Israel and Gaza lights up with bombs and rockets. More than 200 Palestinians have died, and at least 10 are dead in Israel. And the fighting is tied up, among other things, with election politics on both sides. The hostilities are changing the way Israelis and Palestinians view their political leaders. We're going to talk about that with Shibley Telhami. He is a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Shibley Telhami, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: My pleasure.

KELLY: All right. Let's start on the Israeli side with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, before the fighting started was - they were engaged in a fourth election, the fourth election in six years. That election is still deadlocked, but it wasn't looking good for him. His future as prime minister looked to be in serious doubt. How do things look now?

TELHAMI: You know, if there is a political winner in all this, it is probably Benjamin Netanyahu - not that he expected this level of escalation and losing control as he had, particularly in terms of what's happened inside Israel. But clearly, politically, he's the winner because, in fact, his opponents were - appeared on the verge of putting together a government without him for the first time as he's facing major legal trouble and, this time, even with the support of one of the two Arab parties in the Israeli parliament for the first time. He is not only distracted from his own legal trouble, but he's prevented his opponents from forming a coalition government.

KELLY: Let's look at the Palestinian side, where they were supposed to have elections. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just delayed those elections indefinitely. Why?

TELHAMI: He obviously did so for multiple reasons. One is - my own belief is that the only reason he originally said he was going to have elections in January is because they wanted to have a good relationship with the Biden administration. And Biden, they thought, wanted them to have elections. And they were trying to kind of do a certain set of gestures to Biden to improve relations after four years of trouble with Trump. But it turned out Biden wasn't particularly interested in elections, and they sent a lukewarm reaction. They were divided. They sent a yellow, you know, light in terms of encouraging Palestinians to postpone. But also, the Israelis obviously didn't want the elections and sent strong signals.

Add to this that the polls were not showing that he would - that Mahmoud Abbas would do well, that his party would not do well, in part because Hamas itself would probably do better than it did in the prior elections but more that his own party had splintered. And there were over 30 parties, 30 slates that had registered to enter the election with over 90% of the Palestinian public, so there was disillusionment among the public, even though no one really believed that this was going to transform reality on the ground. They thought it might create a certain set of dynamics that could change their situation on the ground.

KELLY: I suppose we should explain. Mahmoud Abbas is the leader of Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Hamas seized control of Gaza some years ago. How has the conflict so far changed the dynamic between those two political centers of power on the Palestinian side?

TELHAMI: Well, let me just put something in perspective, and it's really a point that needs to be made, which is that while Palestinians across the board are disillusioned with their leadership, whether it's Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah in Ramallah or Hamas in Gaza, overwhelmingly, the Palestinians don't blame the leaders for the absence of an end to the occupation. And they see no end in sight. And they believe the Israeli government, the right-wing government, is intent on controlling the territory.

So they - while they don't like how the leaders are behaving and they don't take them very seriously, they really don't blame them for the conflict per se. But Mahmoud Abbas was impotent, and Hamas saw an opportunity. And so part of the escalation from their side in firing rockets was to show that they can act and they can capture that anger. And in the short term, they probably have. Whether or not that's sustainable when people start taking account of what has actually happened and what - how things change, that's an open question.

KELLY: So where does this leave things? If Netanyahu has emerged stronger so far, if Hamas has emerged stronger so far from this latest escalation, where does that leave things in terms of an ultimate goal of ending the violence, returning to negotiations?

TELHAMI: Well, my own view, of course, is clearly the first step is to end the violence. We've seen this before. You know, then you buy a little bit of quiet, and you have another round. This is not going to open up, in my opinion, any major opportunity toward a final political settlement for a lot of reasons. One is that the Palestinians will remain divided. The Israelis will remain divided. But more so, the Israelis have overwhelming power, mostly its right-wing government that is going to control Israel with no intent to make major concessions on the West Bank, and an American administration that doesn't really want to deal with this. This is not a priority issue for them. They want quiet. There's many priorities that the president have, whether it's the pandemic or the economy or even the Iran nuclear deal, which he wants to conclude.

And so for that reason, I think what we're likely to see and what we should see, therefore, is a focus more on the rights of people and not pretend that we're going to have a two-state - and then let's wait on the occupation. Let's start fighting for people's rights, for people's freedoms, for people's equality.

KELLY: Shibley Telhami - he's a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Thank you.

TELHAMI: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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