Opinion

Israel’s Arab MKs Don't Expect Gantz to Become a Palestinian-lover. Just Not a Netanyahu-clone

The Joint List's Arab MKs who endorsed a former IDF chief - accused of war crimes against fellow Palestinians - for prime minister are risking everything to oust Netanyahu. Now Gantz must reciprocate

Kachol Lavan party leader Benny Gantz at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel. September 19, 2019
AFP

In MK Ayman Odeh’s beautiful explanation in the New York Times as to why he and the Joint List he heads decided to nominate Benny Gantz to form the next Israeli government, he describes the overriding necessity to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s "long reign of corruption, lies and fear." It was an act of belief in a shared future, and "to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored." 

Pointedly, Odeh notes it should not be taken as "an endorsement of Mr. Gantz and his policy proposals for the country"; he later told the Israeli media the decision has been "spurred more from a hatred of Haman than from love for Mordechai."

There has been considerable pressure on and expectations from the Joint List to choose "the lesser of two evils." Arab MKs had to give their vote to Gantz - or else it would be Netanyahu, again. 

In some ways that was a compliment: With 13 seats in Israel's Knesset, the Joint List can no longer be ignored or sidelined. It's become the "cornerstone," as Odeh paraphrased Psalms, for the center-left's drive to oust Netanyahu. But after the List’s announcement, their support for Gantz, no matter what coalition calculus he chooses, is now taken for granted

Joint List head Ayman Odeh casts his ballot accompanied by his family during Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Haifa. September 17, 2019
AFP

Fewer observers really understood or queried the tough concessions the Joint List had to make to back Gantz – in terms of its own constituent parties’ ideologies, its constituents – and its representatives’ own Palestinian identity.

An unprecedented compromise was asked from Israel's persecuted, vilified and consistently excluded Arab minority to support Gantz, an ex-IDF chief of staff accused of war crimes against their fellow Palestinians. And almost nothing is expected from Gantz himself to reciprocate that concession.

It's preposterous to put all pressure on the Joint List to either endorse Gantz unconditionally or get all the blame for another corrupt Netanyahu term. Not least when Gantz’s campaign language indicates more of the same – vis-à-vis the Palestinians – but minus the personal corruption.

That puts Israeli Arabs and their representatives in a moral dilemma. How could Arab MKs ever face their constituents and fellow Palestinians if they support an Israeli PM who declares he would continue to bomb and besiege Gaza, bantustanize Palestinians in the West Bank, perpetuate the military occupation, and treat Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens?

Gantz must be pressured to openly reject the insufferable status quo and to promise to challenge Netanyahu's anti-peace legacy – a quid pro quo for the Joint List’s studied, and brave, move.

Without some substantial policy commitment, it won’t only be Gantz who’ll be blamed when Israel adds more names to the Palestinian casualty list (more than 300 civilian protesters killed and 18,000 injured) in Gaza's anti-blockade marches. Arab MK's will be blamed too, and shamed, and marked as traitors for aiding an unrehabilitated Gantz get into office.

That's why, citing those exact same concerns, Mtanes Shehadeh's three-member Balad party backed down from nominating Gantz. The split in the Joint List highlights the crucial inner struggle of Arab MKs being torn between a pragmatic political choice - or maintaining their Palestinian identity.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin meets members of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, second right, and Ahmad Tibi during a post-election consultation. Jerusalem, Sept. 22, 2019
Menahem Kahana,AP

Put simply, Arab MKs are risking everything to oust Netanyahu and advance Israel's democracy. If Gantz doesn't reciprocate that olive branch, it'll only be a matter of time before more Arab MKs withdraw their support, so as not to fail their constituents and fellow Palestinians. Gantz now holds the key to this conundrum.

It's now Gantz's turn to tackle that moral dilemma by pledging to challenge the current status quo and end the vicious cycle of hate and violence that fuels the conflict. Nobody expects Gantz to become a Palestinian-lover, but out of selfish care for Israel's future, he cannot become a Netanyahu-clone, either.

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The whole world is tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gantz won't make headlines if he acts like his predecessors – "managing" the conflict or insisting on Palestinians acknowledging their defeat and Israel's victory. But he could certainly create great momentum if, leveraging widespread anti-Netanyahu antagonism, he tries to step towards ending the conflict.

Netanyahu built his career on destroying the peace process to appease his extremist constituents. Netanyahu shamelessly fueled intra-Palestinian division to avoid making peace by all means; including sending monthly Qatari cash to Hamas to keep it at bay from the PA. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters at his Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019
AFP

Netanyahu also repeatedly vetoed Palestinian unity whenever it appeared possible. In 2014, for instance, when the PA signed an agreement with Hamas, the Israeli team withdrew instantly from the negotiations table with the PA to protest this event. 

"Mr Netanyahu and his government were using Palestinian division as an excuse not to make peace. Now they want to use Palestinian reconciliation as an excuse for the same purpose. This is utterly absurd," Saeb Erekat said back then.

Gantz not only should end this dirty veto-then-blame strategy, he could also incentivize Palestinian unity if he pledges to lift Gaza's blockade - should the Palestinian Authority resume its duties there. He could explicitly endorse a two-state solution.

Gaza poses other problems. Gantz is on record as saying he supports Palestinian economic development in both the West Bank and Gaza, but conditioned it support on the demilitarization of Gaza

That's a futile prerequisite par excellence. Even Netanyahu realized was impossible when he recently reached unofficial cease-fire understandings with Hamas - calm was restored in return for gradually alleviating the blockade.

Armed Gazan groups are willing to consider anything that leads to lifting the blockade except giving up their arms, which they consider their the main leverage in cease-fire talks with Israel.

Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli forces during clashes along the border with Israel east of Bureij in the central Gaza Strip. Sept 20, 2019
AFP

Gazans have already seen that whenever they put their arms aside, the Israeli government feels no urgency to change the territory’s unlivable conditions. Most Gazans are worried that disarmament will lead to a fate similar to the West Bank's IDF raids, house demolitions, arbitrary arrests and more. Palestinian security concerns are no less legitimate than Israel's.

Gazan factions support a permanent cease-fire agreement with Israel that completely ends the cycle of violence in return for lifting the blockade. 

Netanyahu was merely too afraid to accept cease-fire proposals with Hamas - to avoid the backlash from Israeli right-wingers in his cabinet. As an ex-IDF chief, Gantz could instead approach this matter from a position of strength.

Gantz can certainly end the moral dilemma of Arab MKs supporting his government without being seen as sell-outs or pawns. He must take pragmatic steps to satisfy the concerns of the Israeli public, and to gradually end the Palestinians’ prolonged oppression and suffering. As we say in Arabic: Gantz has to "hold the stick from the middle."

Instead of adopting the same absolutist, rejectionist positions that Netanyahu maintained so keenly to prevent Palestinian statehood, there's enough solid ground for Gantz to cultivate popular support within Israel, and the Knesset, to do just the opposite.

That would be an act that would justify, and reciprocate, the trust that ten Joint List MKs have just put in him.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2