Gantz’s Party Challenges Netanyahu but Leaves Arab Voters Cold

Activists in the Arab community consider Kahol Lavan ‘Netanyahu-light,’ a party open to linking up with hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman or even Likud itself

Gantz during a bar tour in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2019
Tomer Applebaum

When the centrist Kahol Lavan party burst on the scene in February as the self-proclaimed liberator of Israel from the polarizing rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, Arab voters took notice. After all, the prime minister has certainly made history in his efforts to demonize and delegitimize the country’s 21-percent Arab minority.

But curiosity soon turned to disappointment, starting with a Kahol Lavan campaign ad ahead of last April’s election; it showed aerial footage of bombed-out sections of Gaza from when the party’s leader, Benny Gantz, was the military chief of staff. The caption: “Parts of Gaza were returned to the Stone Age.”

Meanwhile, a member of the Druze community is the only Arab on the Kahol Lavan slate, and Gantz has declared that he would not include Arab parties in his governing coalition.

Ayman Odeh, a leader of the Joint List of Arab parties, broke a taboo by saying he didn’t rule out joining a coalition headed by Gantz after this Tuesday’s do-over election, but Gantz responded that even though he viewed Arab citizens as “equal and influential in every way,” bringing Arab parties into a coalition was out of the question for what he called “diplomatic reasons.”

That’s Israeli shorthand for long-held concerns that Arab parties can’t be reliable partners for sensitive security matters by virtue of their ethnic identity as Palestinian Arabs. The Joint List is made up of factions that include anti-Zionist or non-Zionist parties. Thus Gantz’s defenders, and many Jewish Israeli voters, argue that Arab entities like the Joint List would not be able to support a military action against their Palestinian counterparts or other Arab countries.

The backlash from the Joint List has remained unforgiving.

“Kahol Lavan leaders are saying they’re not affiliated with Arab parties – in what I think is a clearly racist statement,” Yousef Jabareen, a Joint List lawmaker, told Haaretz. “And they can say they don’t have the same political platform as Likud, but what they are saying is definitely racist.”

Shaping this year’s electoral discourse is the awareness, both among the Arab community and Jewish left and center parties, of the potentially vital role Arab voters could play in shifting the power balance away from the right wing. This is especially the case now as the Arab community becomes more integrated into the Israeli economy and demands that its parties, traditionally on the sidelines of Israeli politics, start having a role from the inside.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List parties, poses for a photo in party offices in Nazareth, Israel, on August 29, 2019.
Mahmoud Illean,AP

As Odeh said in a nod to coalition math and sentiment in the Arab community, “Without us the right-wing government will not be replaced. We can’t do it alone, but without us it’s impossible.”

In turn, Kahol Lavan has dramatically stepped up its outreach to the Arab community in this summer’s election campaign, pouring funds into Arabic-language messaging on social media, along with stepped-up efforts in text messaging and direct overtures to community leaders.

Mohammad Darawshe, director of planning, equality and shared society at the Givat Haviva Educational Center, voiced frustration at a missed opportunity.

“If only we could produce a photo that includes Benny Gantz, Ayman Odeh and the Meretz and Labor Party leadership saying the name of the game is the center-left bloc and all parties commit to a coalition only with each other,” he said. “That would legitimize full Arab-Jewish partnership in the coalition.”

It would also, he suggested, energize Arab voters to come out in full force; in April the community recorded a record-low turnout for the last decade of 49 percent.

Arab voters’ resentment

Afif Abu Much, a computer engineer from Baka al-Garbiyeh and a political activist, says Kahol Lavan is making a mistake in targeting its outreach in Arab towns and villages to certain community members through influence-peddling, promising help in the future in exchange for votes.

But he says that most Arab voters see this as a ruse, as “it will bring no influence, so people won’t give them their votes.” As he put it, “We will not give Kahol Lavan our votes on a silver platter. They don’t care about us.”

He says Kahol Lavan fears being perceived as too close to the Arab community precisely because of Netanyahu’s efforts to make Arab citizens appear disloyal and dangerous. On Thursday, Facebook sanctioned Netanyahu’s official page for violating hate-speech rules after the posting of a message calling on voters to block any government that might include Arab parties. “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men,” the warning went, and Netanyahu said the post had been put up by a staffer by mistake.

“Kahol Lavan is even afraid to say Ramadan Kareem out of fear Netanyahu will call them Arab lovers,” Abu Much said, referring to the traditional greeting during the Muslim holy month.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer from Haifa and an activist in Arab-community politics, said most of the Arab community simply does not buy that Kahol Lavan would form a moderate, centrist government. She says Gantz’s party has indicated that it would be open to an alliance with the party of a hard-liner, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and even with Likud if Netanyahu is no longer at the head of the party.

“Gantz is Netanyahu-light,” Buttu said. “He gives the message that Arabs are good enough to be our voters, but not good enough to be treated equally.”

Buttu also expounded on an important trend: Members of the Arab community are taking on a larger and more visible role in the country’s health care system as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other highly respected professionals. And they want their representatives to focus more on domestic issues.

“They say we want to see issues of violence and criminal activity and drug issues addressed in the community, for example,” she said. “They want to see more opportunities for others in the community.”

The view from the party

Kahol Lavan candidate Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy Mossad director, is spearing outreach to Arab towns and villages around Israel.

He says that after the April election, the party understood that it had to redouble efforts with Arab voters and spread the message that Kahol Lavan stands for equality and respect.

“We understood that all the rationale right, the center and the left of Israel all believe in equality between Arabs and Jews, where there may be differences regarding ideas on the resolution of the conflict,” he said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He added that Kahol Lavan would not sit in a government with hard-liners on either side. “That means not with the far right that does not believe in democracy and is borderline fascist, and on the other side, we will not sit with those who don’t believe Israel is the Jewish state,” he said.

Ben Barak said his party, unlike Netanyahu’s, sees its role as one for uniting the country, not dividing between Arabs and Jews.

“I hope Arab Israelis won’t get scared off from voting; I hope they will exercise their right to vote on September 17,” he said.

As for Arab skepticism about his party, he added: “I say the despair is not a plan for action. They should take the country into their own hands, and the way to influence in a democracy is to vote. Instead of allowing a nationalist right-wing government, they could have a government that protects democracy and equality and will treat them as full citizens.”