Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis on the center-left – many of whom voted for Kahol Lavan a month ago – were deeply disappointed, even devastated, when party leader Benny Gantz opted last week to join a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, Kahol Lavan had vowed that it would never serve in a cabinet under the Likud leader who faces trial on corruption charges.
But as badly as Jewish voters took Gantz’s violation of a key campaign promise, Arab voters – only a small share of whom opted for Kahol Lavan – seem to have taken it worse, perhaps because there was so much more at stake for them.
Indeed, Gantz got first dibs at forming the government thanks in large part to the 15 members of the Arab-led Joint List (including its hard-line Balad faction) who recommended him. With a bit more stamina and resolve, his critics believe, he could have used this support to bring an end to Netanyahu’s long reign.
Although the center-left’s leader was not yet comfortable enough to invite the Joint List to join his government, having it support a minority center-left government headed by Kahol Lavan was definitely seen as an option. Not only would the Joint List have emerged as an important power broker in Israeli politics in that case, it would have won important concessions for Israel’s Arab minority in exchange for its support.
“We had pinned our hopes on Gantz being the savior of Israeli democracy, which has been so threatened by Netanyahu and his cronies,” says Dr. Ziad Mahameed, a general practitioner from the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm. “His surrender is a huge disappointment, and many of us who dared believe change was possible now feel utterly despaired.”
It was far from a simple decision for the Joint List, which won 15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the March 2 election, to recommend that the former military chief of staff, who once bragged about killing Palestinians, be asked to form the next government, Mahameed says.
“We did this because we hoped it would start a process of democratization that would bring an end to racism and divisions and Israeli society,” says Mahameed, a longtime activist in the far-left Hadash party, one of four factions in the Joint List.
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Ayman Agbaria, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Haifa, says Gantz’s move epitomizes the “politics of contempt” that characterizes Israel today. But he says he wasn’t surprised. “It’s not like anyone really believed Benny Gantz would be the big salvation for Arab society,” he says. “If anything was a surprise, it was the stupidity of the move.”
Agbaria cites the late Arthur Finkelstein, Netanyahu’s longtime political strategist, who said Israelis fall into two categories that have a dichotomy within each: those who identify first as Jewish versus those who identify first as Israeli, and those who love Arabs versus those who hate Arabs. “I guess you could describe what Gantz did as his coming out as a Jew first who doesn’t like Arabs,’” Agbaria says.
Only a pawn in their game
Rodayna Badir, a resident of the central Arab town of Kafr Qasem and a prominent activist in Jewish-Arab shared-society initiatives, says she can’t help but feel depressed by the political events of the past week.
“It was such a big blow, I almost feel numb,” she says. “And I fear that after what happened it will be hard to convince Arab citizens to come out and vote again. All those who supported a boycott of the election are most certainly feeling vindicated now.”
If Arab citizens like herself had come to believe that they could shape the future of the country, the inevitable conclusion of recent days, she says, is that “we are all just pawns in this game the Jews play among themselves.”
Perhaps few Arab citizens feel the blow as personally as Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Initiatives, a nonprofit group that promotes a shared society for Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Abu Rass met with Gantz several times over the past year to help him develop an outreach strategy to Arab voters.
“I urged him not to alienate Arab voters, and indeed, in the summer, he came and campaigned in Arab communities and even gave an interview to Arabic television,” Abu Rass says. “He really seemed to be listening, so for me, his decision to join up with Netanyahu – the man who has been constantly inciting against Arabs – came as a big shock.”
In last year’s April 9 election, the first of three within 11 months, only 49 percent of eligible Arab voters came to the polls. On September 17, the second round, 59 percent did. In fact, Kahol Lavan won an entire seat in that election thanks to Arab voters, mainly from the minority Druze community. In the latest round, voter turnout in Arab society rose to 65 percent. The Joint List won the vast majority – 88 percent – of those votes.
“People like to say that the increase in turnout was a response to Netanyahu’s incitement against the Arab community, and no doubt, this was a factor,” Abu Rass says.
“But you have to remember that Arabs are also looking for politics of hope – in other words, they want leaders of political parties to count them and count on them, and this is what many of us believed was happening with Gantz. We thought we would wake up to a new era of Arabs and Jews working together for a new future, and now it feels like all our hopes have been dashed.”
The disappointment is perhaps most pronounced among the Druze, whose members turned out in large numbers in all three elections to vote for Kahol Lavan. The Druze, who practice their own religion, serve in the army and, as a result, tend to feel more connected to Israeli society than other Arab groups.
“Benny Gantz made a big mistake,” says Ali Salalha, a former high school principal from the northern Druze town of Beit Jann. “He had 61 Knesset members backing him, and he could have taken advantage of the time he was given to put together a government, but apparently he didn’t want to have to rely on the Joint List. It’s a shame. He wiped out any hope of an alternative and of toppling Netanyahu.”
Salalha did not vote for the Joint List. He voted for the Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate that has since broken apart after the leaders of Gesher and Labor also joined Netanyahu.
Salalha cast his ballot with a heavy heart, though. In April, he was fifth on the Meretz list, but Meretz only won four seats. By the second round, he was bumped down to a spot with no chance of making it into the Knesset. These days, he’s toying with the idea of setting up a new party – a joint Jewish-Arab-Druze party, he says, in which the non-Jewish representatives will not be mere “decorations.”
Two major laws
Amir Khnifess, director of the Institute for Druze Studies in the north, notes that most members of his community supported Kahol Lavan because they believed that it would repeal or amend two laws: the so-called nation-state law, which critics argue downgrades the status of Israel’s non-Jews, and the so-called Kaminitz law, which is considered a major obstacle to construction and development in Arab towns and villages.
“There is great disappointment with Gantz’s decision to join Netanyahu, especially because it’s clear now that there is little chance there will be any change in these laws,” Khnifess says.
The significance of the Joint List recommending that Gantz form a government cannot be overstated, says Ron Gerlitz, the executive director of aChord Center, a nonprofit that specializes in the social psychology of intergroup relations, with an emphasis on Jews and Arabs. Not once but twice, he notes, both after the September 17 and March 2 elections, did the Joint List throw its weight behind Gantz.
“This was really dramatic, especially if you take into consideration that in the third election campaign, Gantz pretty much ignored Arab voters,” Gerlitz says. “So I guess you could say that the greater the expectation, the greater the disappointment. Not only didn’t Gantz use the mandate he received to form a government, he actually went ahead and joined Netanyahu.”
The Joint List took a big risk when it decided to back Gantz, Gerlitz adds, the risk that he would ultimately turn his back on the four-party alliance. “And that is exactly what happened,” he says. “So now all those who criticized the decision to recommend him are celebrating and saying, ‘You see, we told you that you couldn’t trust the Zionists.’”
Despite it all, Gerlitz – a longtime activist in Jewish-Arab shared-society initiatives – finds reason for hope. The three election rounds of the past year, he argues, have helped “mainstream” the Joint List by showing that Arabs can be political partners, “and the progress made in this respect can’t be turned back.”
“I think what has also become clear beyond any doubt is that it’s no longer possible to set up a center-left government in Israel without the support of the Arab parties, and I think even Yair Lapid, who wants to be prime minister, understands this now,” Gerlitz says, referring to the Yesh Atid party leader who served as Gantz’s deputy and is now destined to head the opposition.