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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Netanyahu's possible downfall gives Palestinians little reason for optimism

Beset by corruption investigations, the Israeli prime minister's position has become even more tenuous since it was disclosed last Friday that his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, had agreed to turn state's witness in two corruption cases in which Mr Netanyahu has been questioned as a suspect

'It won't solve the problem, because there are so many Netanyahus,' says Imad Muna, owner of the Educational Bookshop on Salah Al Din Street, the main thoroughfare in occupied East Jerusalem. Heidi Levine for The National
'It won't solve the problem, because there are so many Netanyahus,' says Imad Muna, owner of the Educational Bookshop on Salah Al Din Street, the main thoroughfare in occupied East Jerusalem. Heidi Levine for The National

Finding a Palestinian who feels sorry for the beleaguered Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not easy.

Beset by corruption investigations, his position has become even more tenuous since it was disclosed last Friday that his former chief of staff, Ari Harow, had agreed to turn state's witness in two corruption cases in which Mr Netanyahu has been questioned as a suspect. One concerns gifts given to him and his family by businessmen and another involves possibly illegal deal-making to gain positive coverage in one of Israel's biggest newspapers, Yediot Ahronoth. Mr Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.

On Saturday, Al Quds, the most popular Palestinian newspaper, ran a caricature suggesting that Mr Netanyahu was being investigated for the wrong crime.

Surrounded by files labelled — among other things — "war crimes", "forced removals" and "terrorism", a morose-looking prime minister was pictured holding up a piece of paper bearing the word "bribes".

Still, the majority of Palestinians would relish seeing Mr Netanyahu convicted of something, whatever the charge.

"It will be a good sign to see him in prison. So many Palestinians will be happy," said Imad Muna, owner of the Educational Bookshop on Salah Al Din Street, the main thoroughfare in occupied East Jerusalem. As one of the few places on the Palestinian side of the city to sell the Hebrew language newspapers, the bookshop is the place to go for those wanting to follow the Netanyahu scandals.

"During the years Netanyahu was prime minister it has been very bad for Palestinians," Mr Muna said.

"The peace process was stopped and he was very aggressive in his behaviour. Nothing changed in a positive way, everything was negative. There were more closures, more settlements, more grabbing land and more people in jail."

Read more: Will the surprise winner of Israel's Labour party leadership contest bring new hope for the Palestinians?

Mr Muna said that during a surge of stabbing attacks by Palestinians in late 2016, "the reaction of the Israeli government was to kill them on the street" rather than capture the assailants alive.

"So many families lost their sons because of the actions of the government Netanyahu headed. Also, Israel twice made wars against Gaza in this period and so many Palestinians were killed. So people would be happy to see him behind bars."

But Mr Muna, and many others interviewed for this article, were not optimistic about who would follow Mr Netanyahu if he were forced out.

"It won't solve the problem, because there are so many Netanyahus," Mr Muna said, naming in particular the far-right Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, far-right defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and far-right justice minister Ayelet Shaked as people who would continue Netanyahu policies.

"They are in the cabinet and the policy has also been their responsibility."

Palestinian political analysts were no more sanguine.

"Once Netanyahu is out, Israel will go in one of two ways: Either someone from Likud will be prime minister or there will be early elections," predicted Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza.

"The trend is that the right will receive the most votes and continue to keep political power in their own hands. What happens is not up to our hopes or to our imagination. Public opinion polls in Israel show that Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home will continue to have solid support. So even if Likud loses some voters they will go to other right-wing parties."

"Unfortunately, the left and centre-left in Israel are weak and the status quo is convenient for the Israelis: No intifada, no major violence and the continuation of settlement expansion," he added.

"It seems to me that things are under control, things are not that bad for Israel and that's why the right wing believes the status quo is comfortable for it and for Israeli voters."

Mahmoud Salaymah, who works in the advertising department of Al Quds newspaper, also believes Mr Netanyahu's departure from the scene would make little difference to Palestinians.

"None of the prime ministers give anything to the Palestinians, whether it's Netanyahu or Olmert, right or left. It's the same policy, the same occupation, just the personality changes," he said.

"Many of the people in Israel want peace, but the government doesn't. The people have to choose a moderate government, not a government of the settlers."

Read more: Future is grim without two-state solution, experts on both sides agree

Elsewhere on Salah Al Din Street, a Palestinian salesman, who asked not to be identified, suggested that no Israeli government full stop would be able to bring peace to the region.

"The presence or absence of Netanyahu won't change anything in Israeli policy. The word peace doesn't exist in the Israeli state. The Zionist movement's goal is to occupy and rule over others."

But the owner of a nearby shop, who also asked to remain anonymous, was more upbeat.

"If Netanyahu goes to jail we will have peace because he's extreme against the Arabs. Anyone in his place will be better," he said. "I don't care if he goes to jail or not but I care that he goes out of government."

Ramadan Safi, an engineer from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, was also optimistic: "Maybe this issue will help the Israelis themselves have a leader who will go forward with the peace process. It's an opportunity for the Israelis to make a change. Netanyahu kept saying there is no partner on the Palestinian side while he demolished the possibility of making a two state solution. So we feel anyone will be better than him."

Jordanians are also following the Netanyahu scandals with interest. Writing in Tuesday's Jordan Times, Hassan Barari, an academic whose specialist focus is Israeli politics, said the fall of Mr Netanyahu would not lead to a peace breakthrough.

"If anything, Netanyahu will be succeeded by a right-wing leader atop almost the same governing coalition. More importantly, a centre-left coalition is still far-fetched."

"In other words, the political rivalries will be only among the right-wing coalition and no matter who will emerge victorious, the political game will continue unchecked," he added.

"Over the last two decades, Israeli society has shifted rightward. It follows that forming a peace coalition is mission impossible."