Analysis

The Israeli Center Is Making Peace With the Country’s Arabs. But They Haven’t Made History Yet

Still, the fact that most of Gantz’s party and the Joint List, and as far as we know even Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, are prepared to vote together for a new government is a turning point

Gantz and Joint List lawmaker Ahmad Tibi at the Israeli Knesset, February 17, 2020
Emil Salman

What a difference 10 days can make in politics. Just before last week’s election, Yair Lapid – the No. 2 in Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan – wrote on Facebook that his party could have formed a government after the previous election in September with the support of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties. But it decided not to. “We won’t form a government with the Joint List. Period. Exclamation mark. Whatever you choose.”

Tuesday morning, Lapid was back on social media. The best option for a new government, he wrote, is a national unity one with Gantz going first as prime minister, while Benjamin Netanyahu goes on trial in the corruption cases against him. But “Bibi rejected it.”

“If we don’t have anyone to form a unity government with,” Lapid continued, “what do we have left? Just two options. One difficult. The other a calamity.”

The calamity he explained would be a fourth consecutive election, so Kahol Lavan has no choice but to form a minority government with the support of the Joint List. “Despite all the lies Bibi is spreading,” Lapid tried to calm his readers, “the Joint List won’t be part of this government. They will vote once from outside and that’s it.”

And even that, he admitted, was “difficult.” Lapid didn’t just rule this option out only 10 days earlier. Back in 2013, when he first ran for the Knesset, Lapid’s Yesh Atid won 19 seats – making his new centrist party the second largest. His first reaction to the results on Election Night in 2013 was to promise that Yesh Atid would not “sit with Zoabis,” referring mockingly to a controversial Arab lawmaker at the time, Haneen Zoabi. He hadn’t even been sworn in as an MK and he was ruling out any cooperation with his Arab colleagues.

On Wednesday, Kahol Lavan, which Lapid co-founded, will begin formal negotiations with the Joint List, including representatives of all its four parties (including the Arab nationalist Balad that Zoabi belonged to). It is aiming to solicit their votes for a new government led by Gantz, in which Lapid is a senior minister. Not only the Joint List is expected to support this government, but also the seven lawmakers of Yisrael Beiteinu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has repeatedly called Arab-Israeli legislators “traitors.”

There is no precedent to this moment in Israeli politics when it comes to the role the Arab parties could fulfill.

Back in Ben-Gurion’s day

It is often said that the Arab-Israeli parties and politicians have never been part of a coalition or government. This is not entirely true.

After the first election in 1949, David Ben-Gurion said that all the parties in the newly elected constituent assembly – which would soon become the first Knesset – could potentially join the government, “except for Herut [the forerunner of today’s Likud] and Maki,” the Israeli communist party. These were ideological boundaries designed to keep out mainly Jewish opponents to Ben-Gurion’s Mapai, and Maki at the time had many Arab members but was dominated by old-school Jewish communists.

Ben-Gurion’s veto of Herut was broken by his successor, Levi Eshkol, when Menachem Begin was invited to join the government in 1967. The communists, in their various incarnations, have yet to serve in an Israeli government.

Until the end of the ’70s, the Knesset hosted small Arab-Israeli “satellite parties” of Labor (originally Mapai) that were part of the governing coalition, though their members didn’t serve as ministers. And there were a few Arab-Israeli and Druze lawmakers of “Jewish” parties who served as ministers and deputy ministers.

The last Arab-Israeli party to be part of a government was the short-lived Labor satellite United Arab List, which supported the first Yitzak Rabin government until 1977. Likud’s first government, formed that year by Begin, featured no Arab parties, and the satellite parties disappeared in the early ’80s.

Over the decades, more radical Arab parties came into being and Maki, or today Hadash, while still nominally being “Arab Jewish,” is predominantly Arab. None of these parties has ever been part of a government. The closest one came was in 1992, when Hadash and the now-defunct Arab Democratic Party (Mada) helped Rabin to power by blocking, along with Labor and Meretz, a Likud government. But even then there was no question of their being part of the governing coalition, and they supported Rabin’s government at various points from outside the government.

Since Rabin, the distance between an increasingly right-wing Israeli mainstream and the Arab parties, which have taken ever-more nationalist positions, has grown. But the results of the last two elections have created a unique opportunity for bridging this divide.

The merger of the four parties into the Joint List came about not only because of the raising of the electoral threshold to 3.25 percent (when Yisrael Beiteinu in 2014 hoped to force the Arab parties out of the Knesset), but also due to pressure from the Arab community, which desired more of a say in the country’s affairs.

Hendel, Hauser and others

Polling indicates that many Arab-Israeli citizens hold less radical positions than those stated by the Joint List politicians. But in the last two elections, none of the other parties – including Labor and Meretz, which once received a large proportion of the Arab vote – had Arab candidates high enough on their tickets to reach the Knesset. An unprecedented 90 percent of Arab Israelis voted for the Joint List last week, with a solid turnout of 65 percent. For the first time, one slate can claim to represent virtually the entire Arab community.

At the same time, the divide in Israeli politics isn’t on the traditional right-left axis, but on pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu lines –making for unlikely bedfellows. For now, Kahol Lavan doesn’t have a majority for a Gantz government; it needs at least 59 lawmakers to overcome Netanyahu’s 58 in the confirmatory government vote.

The three members of the Joint List’s Balad faction are unlikely to vote for any government. Two Kahol Lavan members, Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, and the single Gesher lawmaker within Labor-Gesher-Meretz, Orli Levi-Abekasis, are also refusing to support a government relying on the Joint List. Unless at least three of these holdouts relent, the Gantz minority government will not come into being.

But even if it doesn’t happen, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Kahol Lavan – probably three of the four parties of the Joint List, and, as far as we know, even Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – are prepared to vote together in support of a new government, is a turning point in Israeli politics.

The veto is beginning to crumble on both sides, and it’s all thanks to Netanyahu, who in his corruption, clinging to power and incessant incitement against the Arab politicians – and by extension their voters – has broken a taboo.

There is still no question of the Joint List actually joining a government in the foreseeable future. And the chances of even the most minimal cooperation from outside the coalition are still unclear. But the prospect hasn’t been so close for nearly three decades. The Jewish opposition to Netanyahu knows it has no other option to replace him, and the Joint List lawmakers recognize that their voters want them to be partners in such a move.

If it works and Netanyahu is forced out of office, it may prove to be a fleeting moment, and the old right-left divide will return. But it may be the foundations of a new political landscape.