GAZA CITY // Elections? What elections? If ever there were a testament to the lack of faith Palestinians have that Israeli politics can throw something positive into the explosive mix of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it would be the near-complete disinterest in the vote held on Tuesday in Israel. The thunderstorm that battered the sea off Gaza on Tuesday night was far more exciting than the drab accumulation of votes and polls that from early morning predicted a narrow Kadima victory but a right-wing bloc majority. It certainly held out more interest to punters at one seaside restaurant who saw the pounding rain and impressive lightning strikes as neither portents of good nor bad, just a welcome distraction from the drab constant of Gazan misery.
"What do I care who wins?" said Abdullah Abu Abdullah, 21, puffing away at a narguileh. Then, to the general amusement of his friends, the young university student cited an Arabic proverb far too rude to be repeated in a family newspaper, but that essentially asserted that the identity of whoever would lead the next Israeli government was as important as something foul-smelling in the wind. "They are all war criminals, and nothing good can be expected from any of them."
Politicians and analysts both agreed and disagreed with what seemed the general consensus on the Palestinian street. "We have experienced all the political parties in Israel," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. "For us, they are the same policies with different faces. None has any serious intention for peace." Mr Yousef said he did not expect Israeli elections would have much effect on ceasefire negotiations although he conceded that if no agreement is reached before a new Israeli government is sworn in, a right-wing coalition might tack on more Israeli conditions. But, he said, it would ultimately not affect Hamas's demands and he dismissed the prospect of a new Israeli offensive.
"We have nothing to lose in Gaza. What can they do to make things worse?" As for the rise of Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultra-right party, and Avigdor Lieberman, its leader who in the past has proposed that Israel rid itself of its non-Jewish population, Mr Yousef said it might cause the world to see Israel "as it really is". "If the world considers Hamas extremist, what then of Lieberman, who speaks of ethnic cleansing? A far-right Israeli government might finally show the world that the true obstacle to peace here is not the Palestinians, but Israel."
Ghassan Khatib, a political analyst, saw little such possibility. "As far as the world is concerned, the greatest impediment to progress in the peace process is the domestic Palestinian division and the dominance of Hamas. As long as that continues, it will make no difference to the international community who leads Israel." Mr Khatib said he expected little new from the Israeli elections, which he considered notable only in that they underlined a trend rightward that had been evident for several years. In this respect, he said, the Israeli vote also reflected a reality on the Palestinian side, where the popularity of Hamas continues to rise.
A recent opinion poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found that Hamas had increased its support to 28.6 per cent in January up from 19.3 per cent in April. During the same period, support for Fatah, the faction led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, had declined from 34 per cent to 27.9 per cent. "A right-wing Israeli coalition in Israel would strengthen Hamas's argument that there is no one in Israel to negotiate with, as much of the popularity of Hamas strengthens the position of the right-wing in Israel," Mr Khatib said. "I think the growing power of the Right on both sides reinforce each other."
In his grocery shop near the centre of Ramallah, meanwhile, Raed Hasan, 54, had just finished unloading wares from a delivery van before turning his attention back to a TV screen mounted above the till. It was set to a 24-hour movie station. Mr Hasan said he had stopped watching the news after the Israeli offensive on Gaza ended, and had to be reminded that Israeli elections had just been held. "Who won? I don't bother with the news much more. It's never good."