The Joint List’s decision to endorse Benny Gantz as the next Israeli prime minister may not be unprecedented, but it is historic nonetheless. The first and last mainstream Jewish candidate backed by representatives of Israel’s Arab minority was Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. After almost three decades of steady deterioration and increasing alienation in Jewish-Arab ties - precipitated by the failed Oslo Accords, Palestinian suicide bombings and the deadly October 2000 riots in which 13 Israeli Arabs were killed, Arab politicians came round full circle on Sunday and crossed their Rubicon once again.
The Joint List’s recommendation to President Reuven Rivlin to give Gantz first crack at forming a new government, however, wasn’t a simply symbolic gesture. It added the Joint List’s 13 members of Knesset to Gantz’s existing 44 (Kahol Lavan + Labor + Democratic Union), giving the center-left candidate 57 endorsers, two more than Benjamin Netanyahu’s 55. Given that Kahol Lavan also emerged from last Tuesday’s election as the biggest party, the Joint List’s endorsement virtually guarantees that Gantz gets first dibs on forming a new government.
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The main catalyst for the Arab leaders’ newfound assertiveness is the same one that facilitated the Joint List’s surge from nine Knesset seats in April to 13 in last Tuesday’s election – and it goes by the name of Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister’s relentless incitement against the Arab minority during the election campaign galvanized Arab voters to go the polls. The same fury compelled the Joint List to overrule the strenuous opposition of its ultra-nationalist Balad component and to endorse a Zionist center-right candidate, a move rendered even more remarkable in light of Gantz’s past as Israeli army chief during the 2014 Gaza War, in which many hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed.
But it was not only their lust to exact revenge on Netanyahu that pushed the Arab politicians to inject themselves into the main arena of Israeli politics, from which they have largely kept their distance. The deeper – and, in the long run, far more significant – backdrop to the Joint List’s move is the ongoing integration of Arabs in Israeli workplaces and the community’s increasing focus on equality and acceptance rather than the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Their overriding concern in recent years isn’t violence in the West Bank but an increasingly lethal crime spree in Arab towns and villages, where murder rates far exceed those in the Jewish sector. Thus, the main demand made of Arab politicians is not to champion Palestinians but to cajole the government and the Israeli police to intervene with force to put an end to the crime wave, just as they would if the victims were Jews. Disappointed by Netanyahu’s response, the Arabs are understandably trying their luck with Gantz instead.
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Even if there is no concurrent change in the Joint List’s anti-Zionist ideology or support for the Palestinian national struggle, its pragmatic pivot toward involvement in mainstream Israeli politics and willingness to jump off the fence and endorse a former army of chief of staff are the kind of changes that Jewish Israeli politicians have always demanded. You would never know that, however, judging by the reactions it garnered, which ran from distinctly cool to the customary crazy.
Right-wing politicians, from Netanyahu on south, seized on the Joint List’s endorsement to press on with their efforts to brand Gantz and the entire center-left as collaborators with the enemy – i.e. Arabs, both local and general; this, while they concurrently berated Gantz for not jumping at the chance of serving under Netanyahu in any new government.
The objectives of casting Arabs as fifth columnists may have changed since the election results became known, but the song sickly remains the same. The sad truth is that Netanyahu and much of the right have no interest in integrating Israeli Arabs other than on their own demeaning terms. The right-wingers claim their antipathy is directed at extremist Arab politicians rather than their voters – a pretense shattered in the recent election campaign – but the sad truth is that accepting Arabs as equals would deprive Netanyahu’s brand of politics of its favorite punching bag. They are the “barbarians at the gate,” from which only the right-wing can protect Israel.
Keeping the Joint List excommunicated from the main arena of politics serves an even more nefarious purpose: It allows the right not to consider Arab votes or their elected officials at all. Thus, Netanyahu and his representatives are actually claiming a clear-cut right-wing victory in Tuesday’s ballot – among the 107 Jewish members of Knesset. The Arabs, they imply, simply don’t count. It may not be apartheid, but it reeks of racism to the depths of hell.
The reaction of Benny Gantz, the main beneficiary of the Joint List’s endorsement, was more restrained, but not much warmer – and he took pains to broadcast his limited appreciation. The Joint List’s embrace could hamper his efforts to attract right-wingers to his potential coalition and was already partially responsible for Avigdor Lieberman’s decision not to endorse either Gantz or Netanyahu. On the face of things, at least, it’s an endorsement Gantz could do without.
In fact, throughout the day the media cited Gantz’s circle as actually preferring that the Joint List refrain from endorsing him and that Rivlin give his nod to Netanyahu first. Their convoluted reasoning assumes that whoever goes first is bound to fail, despite being allotted up to 42 days to try and form a new coalition. The second in line will stand a better chance because the looming threat of yet another election – the third this year - will concentrate the minds of politicians and spur defections from one camp to the other.
Machiavellian machinations that would lead to Netanyahu being picked first to form a new coalition, however, would crush the center-left. The sight of Netanyahu remaining in the driver’s seat rather than being relegated to the sidelines – for the first time in a decade - in the wake of his clear-cut defeat in the election would be, for most Gantz voters, way too much to bear.
Distrust runs so high, in fact, that many of his opponents suspect that with Rivlin’s mandate in hand, Netanyahu could very well “engineer” a national emergency that would break Kahol Lavan’s total opposition to participating in a government in which he continues to serve as prime minister. Gantz and Co. would be outplayed and outmaneuvered, not for the first time.
Perhaps it’s all a clever spin, justifying Gantz’s lukewarm reaction to his new Arab endorsers and setting himself up as Rivlin’s reluctant appointee rather than eager beaver. Nonetheless, with the exception of Israel’s core leftist base, the Joint List’s change of face garnered very little enthusiasm among most Israeli politicians. They turned out to be much bolder in demanding change of Arabs than for acknowledging it when it starts to appear.
Optimists can hope that once constituted, a Gantz government would be far more forthcoming toward Arabs and engage in serious efforts to rectify decades of government discrimination. Pessimists will fear that once their overtures are spurned, Israeli Arabs might turn in a contrary direction, closer to the nightmares that the right routinely conjures for purely political gain.