Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a surprise appearance in the Knesset on Wednesday. While Islamic Jihad rockets paralyzed the south and as Israel teetered on the brink of a full- scale military operation in Gaza, the urgent calling that took Netanyahu away from his post was to lambast the 13-MK Joint List for its blunt opposition to the targeted assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata.
Netanyahu seized upon a Tuesday night demonstration in which two Joint List members – Ofer Cassif and Aida Touma-Sliman – accused Netanyahu of “warmongering” and Benny Gantz of supporting “calculated murder.” Their diatribes enraged the few Jewish Israelis who had heard of the demonstration before Netanyahu turned it into a cause célèbre. Through his spokespersons and in his Knesset appearance, Netanyahu spread the news far and wide while fanning the flames of hostility toward the Joint List, a party supported by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arabs.
The Joint List’s criticism of the assassination and its aftermath, harsh as it may be, can hardly be described as an urgent national priority. Were it not for Netanyahu, most Israelis would have reacted with nothing more than a shrug.
But it serves Netanyahu’s political and personal interests to drive a wedge between Jewish public opinion and the Arab-supported Joint List in order to block any possibility of their allying with Gantz to set up a minority government that would depose him. And as Netanyahu has proven time and time again over the past year, his personal interests, repackaged as national priorities, dictate his government’s policies.
In fact, it is Netanyahu’s cynical exploitation of the Gaza assassination to further his political interests that sparked suspicions that the timing of the operation was influenced by politics more than military imperatives. But given that the majority of Israelis generally support harsh responses to Gaza rocket attacks, Netanyahu’s minions quickly stifled claims that they were influenced by political considerations as treachery in time of war.
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Whether it was intentional or not, the ploy achieved its aims. The possibility of a minority coalition supported from the outside by the Joint List was quickly abandoned by Gantz and his colleagues, leaving Kahol Lavan leaders with two stark choices: Either join a broad-based national unity government headed by Netanyahu, in contravention of their oft-repeated vows during the campaign, or bear responsibility for taking Israel to its third election campaign this year.
The ramifications of Netanyahu’s onslaught, however, are deeper and more long-lasting than the current political stalemate. The Gaza operation, the Joint List’s reaction and, most of all, Netanyahu’s deliberate amplification of the wide gap between Israeli Jews and Arabs on matters pertaining to the conflict with Palestinians effectively put an end to the Joint List’s recent efforts to increase its collaboration with Israel’s center-left and civil society.
Prior to the disruption caused by the Gaza flare-up, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh and his deputy Ahmed Tibi had led a series of demonstrations protesting rampant violence in Arab society and demanding true equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. They made a calculated decision to put the divisive Israeli-Palestinian issue on the back burner and to concentrate on improving the lot of their own constituency.
The peaceful demonstrations, which took place throughout Arab towns and villages, were regarded favorably by politicians and the media alike. After years in which Arab politicians were criticized for dwelling on the conflict more than on the well-being of their voters, Joint List leaders were praised for their revamped set of priorities.
Theoretically, Netanyahu and the Likud might have joined in the accolades, given their traditional depiction of Joint List leaders as terrorist-supporting fifth columnists. But once the demonstrations spread, Odeh and Tibi indicated that they might be willing to paper over their political differences with Gantz in exchange for ironclad commitments to improve their lot. As their contacts with Kahol Lavan intensified, the Joint List emerged as a clear and present danger to Netanyahu’s continued rule.
In response, Netanyahu and his minions launched a social media campaign lambasting Gantz for contemplating a coalition with the Joint List. They ignored the positive signs of reconciliation and focused on the Joint List’s historic opposition to the occupation, and on its extreme flanks, to Israel’s very existence.
The outbreak of violence in Gaza provided Netanyahu with the coup de grâce that allowed him to demolish any chance of a Gantz-led coalition that would have enjoyed parliamentary support of Arab-affiliated parties – for only the second time in Israel’s history and the first since 1992.
In doing so, Netanyahu and his colleagues tainted the entire Israeli Arab community as hostile. They nipped the fledgling efforts to reconstruct Jewish-Arab relations in the bud. They sowed suspicion and division between Jews and Arabs. They renewed the ethnocentric isolation of Israeli Arabs and rekindled apprehensions about their loyalties.
The great irony is that everyone knows that Netanyahu is cynically exploiting the security situation for his own personal needs and to accommodate his single-minded push for a government that would grant him immunity from prosecution. Nonetheless, and despite the collateral damage caused by his shameless machinations, the bottom line is that they work.
The minority government is now off the table. Relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs are bound to reverse course and to head downhill. Not for the first time, the end result was Netanyahu 1, Israel 0.