Analysis from Israel

Last week, I wrote about a Palestinian author who refused to participate in a panel discussion with an Israeli at a French literary conference. But it turns out this wasn’t the author’s private initiative: Boycotting all Israelis, even those most opposed to the Netanyahu government, is now official Palestinian Authority policy – even as the PA tells the world its problem isn’t with Israel, but only with Benjamin Netanyahu’s “right-wing” policies.

The new policy was announced this weekend by Hatem Abdel Kader, a senior official in PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party. “We will try to thwart any Palestinian-Israeli meeting,” he said. “In Fatah we have officially decided to ban such gatherings.” And it’s already being implemented in practice, as The Jerusalem Post reported: Organized mobs of Palestinian protesters recently forced the cancellation of two Israeli-Palestinian conferences sponsored by a civil-society group. And Sari Nusseibeh, who was supposed to speak at one, didn’t even show up due to threats from the anti-normalization thugs.

I can’t dispute Abdel Kader’s assertion that most such conferences are a waste of time, because participants usually represent neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian mainstream. But that’s a far cry from banning them – especially if the PA were being truthful when it claims its only problem is the Netanyahu government. After all, the Israelis who attend such conferences are generally Netanyahu’s most vociferous critics, and vocal advocates of greater Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. If the PA isn’t even willing to countenance dialogue with them, which Israelis would it be willing to talk to?

Moreover, how is such a boycott supposed to persuade mainstream Israelis to favor the concessions the PA claims to want? Granted, Israeli activists’ enthusiastic reports of Palestinian “moderation” at such meetings have thus far had little impact; to most Israelis, Palestinian actions – from the rampant terror that followed Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank and Gaza to the PA’s serial rejection of statehood offers – speak louder than words. But is a refusal to talk to any Israeli at all a more convincing demonstration of Palestinian moderation?

Finally, the official reason given for the ban is bizarre: Fatah reportedly “fears that the Israeli government would exploit such meetings to tell the world that there is some kind of dialogue going on between Israelis and Palestinians and that the only problem is with the PA leadership, which is refusing to return to the negotiating table.” Given that the entire world has publicly blamed Israel for the impasse, why would Fatah fear any such thing?

One can only conclude that Fatah, unlike the rest of the world, knows the truth: The PA is the one that has steadfastly refused to negotiate, first imposing new conditions like a settlement freeze and then refusing to talk even if Israel accedes, as it did by declaring an unprecedented 10-month construction moratorium. And Fatah is desperately afraid Westerners will finally catch on.

So far, they haven’t. But they should. Because a Palestinian government that bans dialogue even with Israel’s far left is patently unready to make peace with Israel.

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Why the right lost Israel’s do-over election

It’s still unclear whether Israel’s next election will be in four years or four months. But either way, if the center-right wants a better outcome, it needs to learn the lessons of September’s election. So here are two: First, while center-right voters realize that many things leftists deem “anti-democratic” actually aren’t, they dislike behavior that’s genuinely anti-democratic. Second, though the Arab parties are shunned deservedly, treating all Israeli Arabs as anti-Israel is both wrong and counterproductive.

In April’s election, the nonreligious center-right parties (Likud and Kulanu) won a combined 39 seats running separately. But in September, running together, they won just 32 seats. Moreover, most of those lost votes didn’t stay in the center-right/religious bloc: Though the bloc as a whole lost only five seats, that was mainly because fewer religious Zionist votes were wasted on parties that didn’t make it into the Knesset.

Some voters migrated to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, now rebranded as an anti-haredi and anti-Netanyahu party. But an estimated three seats’ worth simply stayed home in an election where overall turnout rose.

So why did center-right voters desert? Primarily, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crossed lines in the latest campaign that he never crossed before.

I’ve defended Netanyahu for years against false charges of anti-democratic conduct. For instance, there’s nothing undemocratic about the nation-state law, proposals to rein in Israel’s hyper-politicized Supreme Court or requiring NGOs funded mainly by foreign governments to say so openly. But during the latest campaign, he unquestionably adopted undemocratic tactics.

Take, for instance, his claim that Arab voter fraud “stole” April’s election from the right. Undermining faith in the validity of an election is extremely dangerous because no democracy can survive if people don’t trust elections to be free and fair. Thus election results should be called into question only in extreme cases, like the 2013 Beit Shemesh mayoral election, which a court invalidated because massive and well-documented fraud coupled with a very close result made the outcome genuinely dubious.

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