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Israel's Jewish-Arab Rift Resurfaced This Year, but Coalition Deal Signals Change

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Israeli Arab politician, leader of the United Arab list, Mansour Abbas, center, discusses with President Reuven Rivlin
Israeli Arab politician, leader of the United Arab list, Mansour Abbas, center, discusses with President Reuven RivlinCredit: Abir Sultan / AP

With or without a change government, there are those who can already confidently declare that they “succeeded” long before the mandate to form a coalition expired at midnight. Representatives of Israel’s Arab citizens, in separate party lists and using different strategies, have once again proven that they are key players in the struggle for the future of the state’s leadership; they are not going anywhere, and they’re not in anyone’s pocket.

On the one hand, the Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List continued to stubbornly negotiate until the last minute for the benefit of its voters in the Negev. Suddenly, the Hebrew media was forced to explain to prime-time viewers what the Kaminitz Law is and describe the plight of the residents of the unrecognized villages. Who would have believed that the headline “Waiting for the Shura council’s decision” would appear on TV screens in Hebrew in the midst of a seminal political battle, and that journalist Rina Matzliah would be updated live from sources we didn’t even know she had there?

The new importance of the Shura council – a Muslim religious advisory body – is, of course, courtesy of one Benjamin Netanyahu. With his own hands, he chose conservative Islamist Mansour Abbas over the secular liberal Ayman Odeh, helped by the weakness of the center-left camp that never dared to challenge Likud’s illogical distinction between those it considered “good Arabs” and “bad Arabs.”

Odeh’s Joint List proved that it does not work for the left and should not be taken for granted, with two out of three of the party’s components, Hadash and Balad, declaring that they would not support Naftali Bennett as prime minister. The Yamina leader, who in the past likened the Palestinian problem to “shrapnel in the butt,” got to feel the shrapnel’s revenge as he came into the negotiations’ home stretch.

The declaration of the two parties, which focused on Hadash’s ideological opposition to supporting a right-wing government, was mostly symbolic. Joint List leader Odeh had already said that the party would “not be a stumbling block” to replacing Netanyahu. That is, it may not have taken that stand if there had not been enough votes without its support.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh in Tel Aviv earlier this monthCredit: Ofer Vaknin

But the center-left nonetheless reacted to this symbolic decision with the expected resentment. There, removing Netanyahu is seen as a higher mission at this time than realizing values and policies. This camp’s disappointment and astonishment that there are Arabs who for some reason were not happy to support the government of Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Gideon Sa’ar at all costs is probably the reason why the camp shrank in the first place and why Netanyahu overtook them in lifting the gauntlet of partnership with an Arab party.

The cliché about the Arabs not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity was doing overtime on social media, and proved once again that the left has quite a bit to learn about its seemingly natural partners. But instead, camp leaders mostly lamented in private conversations that the Joint List was disparaging Abbas’ accomplishment for no reason. The responsible adult, once again, was Odeh, who after all the rounds in which Benny Gantz turned his back on him, continues to back the change camp even as its leader, Bennett, refers to Odeh’s national identity as shrapnel in the butt.

This past year has proven more than ever that the deepest and most fundamental rift in the country’s history was and remains the relationship between the Jews and Arabs between the river and the sea. No matter how much we try to suppress the nationalism issue, and “manage the conflict,” a concept Bennett inherited from Netanyahu, it will forever hover over us and cloud our lives if we do not strive for a just solution based on understanding and equality. It is only fitting that the last moments in this political saga also articulate this rift. In that sense, with or without a new government, change has already begun.

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