Israel’s enemies can rest easy. Boycott, divestment and sanctions advocates can finally go on vacation. Anti-Israel activists, suddenly redundant, might take up a different vocation. And the same is true for the myriad Israeli government agencies and American Jewish organizations that spend time, energy and many millions of dollars to defend the Jewish state. Their money could be better spent elsewhere.
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu around, there is no point in besmirching the Zionist entity and no point in trying to defend it: The prime minister’s latest assault on Israeli Arab representatives in the Knesset, enthusiastically embraced by the Israeli right and only sparingly rebuffed by the center left, provides sufficient evidence to convict Israel of racism, as its detractors claim. The stench, after all, is coming from the very top.
Netanyahu and his Likud toadies – AKA cabinet ministers – have been railing non-stop for the past 48 hours about the existential dangers awaiting Israel if Benny Gantz is sworn into office with the help of the Joint List. The very fact that Gantz and his colleagues in Kahol Lavan are endeavoring to secure the Joint List’s support, they insinuate, smacks of high treason.
When confronted, Netanyahu and his disciples insist that their diatribes only target Arab parliamentarians, not their constituency. This, in plain words, is hogwash: The 13 Knesset members of the Joint List were elected only two months ago by an overwhelming majority of the Israeli Arab population. There is no daylight between Arab voters and their elected officials. Their views and opinions are, for the most part, one and the same.
So when Netanyahu and his ministers describe the Joint List as a “terrorist supporting fifth column,” they are tarring the Israeli Arab population as a whole. When they describe Arab parliamentarians – as well as the solitary Jewish figure on the Joint List, Ofer Cassif – as bent on Israel’s destruction, they are branding all Israeli Arabs as subversives and traitors.
And when they claim that Israeli governments are somehow barred from relying on what they describe as “anti-Zionists” – which is simply a euphemism for Arabs – they are delegitimizing the Israeli Arab population and advocating its permanent segregation from the corridors of power. They are placing 20 percent of Israel’s population beyond the pale.
Netanyahu insists that the Joint List is bound to have undue influence on the security policies of any Gantz-led government. His Arab partners will constrain Gantz’s ability to combat Palestinian terrorism, he says. The prime minister knows full well, however, that the Joint List will not be a part of the government, but will only support it from the outside. Gantz will neither seek their advice nor need their consent.
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In fact, Gantz could terminate his ties with the Joint List the moment his government is approved by the Knesset: In order to topple it in a no-confidence motion, the opposition is required to garner an absolute majority of 61 Knesset members who unanimously and simultaneously agree on an alternative prime minister. In the current political climate, that’s a formidable hurdle, to say the least, and one laced with irony. The stringent requirements for a successful no-confidence motion were legislated by Netanyahu to consolidate his own hold on power.
In fact, Netanyahu realizes full well that Kahol Lavan’s main objective in setting up a minority government – which, at the moment, is hardly in the bag – is to eject him from the Prime Minister’s Office and install Gantz in his place. Given that the prime minister himself has collaborated with Arab politicians in the past and reportedly tried to persuade them to support his own government following the election in April, one can safely assume that the “clear and present danger” he speaks of is not to national security, but to his own continued tenure as prime minister.
Netanyahu’s removal from office will, at best, dissolve his 55-member right-wing bloc, allowing Likud satellites to negotiate independently with Gantz. More importantly, Netanyahu’s departure from the office he has occupied for over a decade is likely to precipitate the long-awaited uprising in Likud that will depose and replace him with a new party leader, one who is willing to set up the broad-based center-right government that Gantz desires.
At worst, from the center-left’s point of view, Gantz’s presence at the helm will put an immediate stop to Netanyahu’s ongoing war against his investigators, prosecutors and the rule of law. Netanyahu will also lose his ability to use his august office in order to set the agenda of the election campaign; that significant advantage would now reside with Gantz.
As he has shown throughout the past year, Netanyahu's main and perhaps only focus is looking out for number one. He is desperate to leverage his prime ministership as best he can in order to avoid criminal prosecution. His strategy is to inflame public opinion in order to deter Gantz, as well as Kahol Lavan’s more right-leaning members, from concluding a deal with the Joint List, and to thus force Israel into its third election campaign this year. No matter the outcome, new elections would keep Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office until at least June 2020.
Netanyahu views his anti-Arab onslaught as a dual-purpose instrument. After undermining Gantz’s efforts to set up a new coalition, his ethnocentric assault against any incorporation of Arabs into Israeli politics will also drive Netanyahu’s election campaign, as it has, on a lesser scale, ever since the 2015 elections. From his infamous Election Day alarm in 2015 about Arabs flocking to the polls through his government’s minority-shunning nation-State law, incitement against Arabs has been Netanyahu’s preferred weapon of choice.
Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaign is another indication of his extreme desperation as well as his willingness to inflict long-lasting harm on Israel to save his own skin. After torching the rule of law and undermining public confidence in its legal system, after maligning Israeli democracy and instilling baseless doubts about the integrity of its elections, after subjecting Israel to two consecutive and costly elections and now striving for a third for the simple reason that they did not deliver the kind of coalition that would give him his coveted immunity from prosecution, Netanyahu is now isolating and antagonizing Arabs and pouring high-octane fuel on their delicate relations with Israel and its Jewish majority.
In fact, Netanyahu’s obscene offensive comes at a particularly sensitive time of potentially momentous change in the attitudes of Arab citizens and their representatives towards the Jewish state in which they reside. Reflecting their constituents’ increasing integration into the Israeli workplace as well as their growing exasperation at the moribund peace process, Israeli Arab elected representatives have shifted their priorities from championing the Palestinian cause to lobbying for their own civil equality. With the notable exception of the recent flare-up in Gaza, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh and his colleagues have been moderating their criticism of Israeli policies towards the Palestinians and amplifying their just demand for an end to institutional discrimination.
Over the past two months, the Joint List has organized widespread peaceful demonstrations in Arab villages and towns. They were not protesting military actions against fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but beseeching Israeli legal authorities to crack down on rampant violence in Arab society, which far exceeds the violent crime rate among Jews. Prior to Netanyahu’s divisive campaign, Israeli politicians and pundits of all political stripes praised and welcomed the refreshing signs of a new Arab willingness to collaborate with and integrate into the Jewish state.
In fact, Odeh’s deputy Ahmed Tibi, the most-widely known and probably best-liked Israeli Arab politician, has repeatedly indicated in recent weeks that the Joint List has been willing to make do with vague promises to advance the peace process in their largely clandestine contacts with Kahol Lavan, in exchange for concrete pledges to fight violence, end discrimination and institute true equality in state budget allocations. Netanyahu’s vilification could very well halt these encouraging trends.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Netanyahu’s thinly disguised ethnic baiting is the eagerness of many top Likud politicians to join him, and even more so, the reluctance of most center-left figures to publicly protest his words. As Netanyahu prepares for an unprecedented “emergency rally” on Sunday night to rail against the Arab menace, it behooves moderate leaders to speak out against his incitement.
Better yet, Gantz and his allies could provide the most apt rejoinder to Netanyahu’s rally – which is truly reminiscent of a darker time and a more sinister place in which a charismatic, racist leader incited against a defenseless Jewish minority – by concurrently and dramatically announcing that the agreement Netanyahu was trying to prevent was already a done deal.
Israelis suffering from election fatigue may support such a deal in far greater numbers than Netanyahu anticipates, if only to break the current political paralysis. Others will learn to live with it after the fact, if not before. More importantly, the establishment of a moderate center-left Israeli government by virtue of a political arrangement with Arabs would produce and provide the kind of powerful bleach needed to erase the stain and remove the shame that Netanyahu, in his self-absorbed frenzy, has indelibly stamped on Israel and its image.