Kahol Lavan is essentially a right-wing party led by generals. Benny Gantz, its leader and candidate for prime minister, launched his political career eight months ago with videos boasting about the hundreds killed by the Israeli military under his command in two Gaza campaigns. The No. 4 on its slate and candidate for defense minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, was Gantz’s predecessor as Israel’s military chief and commanded the equally devastating Operation Cast Lead – the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-09.
Then there’s Kahol Lavan’s No. 3, Moshe Ya’alon, a former Likudnik who once called Peace Now a virus and is adamant that a Palestinian state won’t be established in this century. And just for once it’s worth mentioning the party’s No. 2. He had a very vague military record but after the 2013 election, when there was an opportunity for a centrist government, not under Benjamin Netanyahu, he memorably said on election night that his Yesh Atid party “won’t join a bloc with the left and the Zoabis,” referring dismissively to then-legislator Haneen Zoabi of the Balad party.
Kahol Lavan’s platform is not that different from Likud’s. It has no plan for solving the Israel-Palestine conflict beyond “separating Israelis and Palestinians.” Many of its members are ex-Likudniks and ex-candidates for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Basically, Kahol Lavan is a slightly more moderate Likud, just without the overt corruption, with some adherence to Israel’s limited democratic ideals and without the fanatic devotion to Netanyahu. Calling it “centrist” is a misnomer.
This long explanation about Kahol Lavan’s true nature is to emphasize just how much of a big deal it is that the Joint List, representing the various political parties of Israel’s Arab citizens, has now endorsed Gantz as a potential prime minister in its consultations with President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday evening. It should be taken as a sign of just how badly the voters who sent the 13 Joint List representatives to the Knesset last Tuesday want to integrate into Israeli society.
The last time they endorsed a prime minister was 27 years ago when they endorsed Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin. Since then we’ve had the Oslo Accords, the collapse of Oslo, a terrible second intifada that included the riots in which police shot and killed 13 Arab Israeli citizens, and long years of bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza. Not to mention the mainstreaming of anti-Arab racism.
So the endorsement is a big deal. It doesn’t mean that the Joint List will be part of any government Gantz will lead, if he ultimately succeeds in forming a coalition. There is no prospect of that. And as Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said Sunday afternoon, their main objective here is ending the Netanyahu era. The racism that Netanyahu has legitimized since his poisonous “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves” video on Election Day 2015 is finally being answered. The future is another matter.
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But this isn’t just about Netanyahu’s comeuppance. The Joint List MKs needed of course to acknowledge that this was why many of their voters came out for them last Tuesday. But the voters were also coming out to say that they want a greater say in Israel’s mainstream political debate. A poll conducted in April found that 87 percent of Arab Israelis want an Arab party to join the government, any government. (The same poll also found that far more of them prefer to identify themselves as Arab Israelis than as Palestinians.)
This is still only a first step and so far in public at least, overtures from Odeh in recent interviews have received a cold shoulder from Kahol Lavan. And neither is the Joint List wholehearted in this. The three Balad members voted against the endorsement and their representatives didn’t join the rest of the list at the President’s Residence.
The Joint List shouldn’t be over-romanticized anyway. It contains communists, Nasserists, Islamists and apologists for Bashar Assad’s mass murders of Syrian civilians. But they are still the legitimate representatives of the overwhelming majority of Israel’s Arab minority and certainly no worse than some of the racist and fundamentalist Jewish politicians we have on offer. So this is a big deal, but just the first step.
This is 2019, not 1992. And Gantz isn’t Rabin, yet. But at the same time, the Rabin endorsed by the Arab parties back then was also the pre-Oslo Rabin – the Rabin who called “to break the hands and legs” of rioters in the first intifada and to tighten the siege on Beirut in 1982. He was also in many ways closer to the right than the left at that point.
But it’s still a big deal because of all that has happened and the new beginnings that could be opening up in the post-Netanyahu era in Israeli politics and society. On Sunday evening, Odeh tweeted a passage from the Book of Psalms: “The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief corner-stone.” It’s a beautifully chosen passage, if slightly optimistic. This isn’t yet a cornerstone, but it may be a foundation.