The inauguration of the new Bennett-Lapid government is an important turning point in the political arena in Israel. A country that since 2009 has only known Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister will have to get used to referring to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. The excitement among the public and the media is understandable, especially since for more than a decade the prime minister was trying to build the Third Kingdom of Israel in his image and for the sake of his own survival.
Moreover, the desire to replace Netanyahu led to the seemingly illogical connections between a conservative Arab Islamic party and a liberal party headed by a proud member of the gay community. Add to this Avigdor Lieberman and his well-known affection for Arab citizens, and Bennett, a religious Zionist. This is a celebration of democracy that cannot be ignored. But therein arises a question of how Israeli Arab citizens, as well as the Palestinians, will view the new government.
Israeli politicians and journalists mistakenly assume that Israeli Arab citizens and the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza examine the new government from the Israeli perspective. As such, any differing line of thought or opposing opinion is considered illogical and leads once again to the view that among the Arabs “there is no partner and they miss every opportunity” to make a change. The prevailing view in the change camp is that the Palestinians should be saying thank you and be partners to the Israeli celebration of democracy.
But in fact, the picture is totally different. Both the Palestinians and Israel Arab citizens don’t see themselves as partners to the Jewish Zionist democratic celebration in Israel, but seek to strengthen democracy in the broad sense of the term: democracy that’s based on universal values of justice, equality, freedom and self-determination. They seek to reduce the scourge of racism and discrimination and to advance a diplomatic and just solution to one of the oldest disputes in the world.
From an Israeli perspective, the main test is whether the change bloc leads to the deposing of Netanyahu, not the degree to which it brings changes in other areas later on – which is why all the partners in this government from the left are giving the government time and a chance, rather than dismantling it immediately.
On Sunday the Palestinians were tensely following the developments in the Knesset. Several websites and media outlets were reporting the events live, and the swearing in of the Bennett government made the headlines. But there aren’t too many expectations. In Ramallah they heard Bennett loud and clear, and understood that all his government would be working toward would be economic initiatives to reduce friction, as he put it. They also heard direct threats against the leadership in Ramallah and in Gaza that if they act with violence, they’d take a hit.
There wasn’t a word about a diplomatic arrangement, and not even a symbolic reference to two states. There was nothing to even expect with regard to permanent borders and certainly not to any initiatives that could lead to a resumption of the diplomatic process. Bennett even made it clear that the law for Tel Aviv would be the law for Ofra, and Rahat is akin to Kiryat Shmona, i.e., that the State of Israel is one bloc from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The Palestinians will be expected to be pleasant and disciplined, to sit quietly, to eat, drink and make a living, and toe the line with the change government until Netanyahu is truly gone. Just as you waited for U.S. President Donald Trump to leave, now let’s make sure that Netanyahu doesn’t make some kind of comeback, after which we’ll see. That was the message.
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Meanwhile, within Israeli Arab society the picture is somewhat more complex. United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas spoke in Arabic about the substantial change in the political arena. “We want to influence policy and strategy from within,” he said from the Knesset podium. Abbas also spoke of an unprecedented achievement, rejecting claims that he had only gotten crumbs.
His party colleague, Saeed Alkharumi, whom Israelis only recently became aware of, didn’t agree with these sentiments and chose to abstain in the vote, sending a message to Abbas, as well as to Bennett and Lapid, that if they take any steps against the Arab population of the Negev he wouldn’t hesitate to vote against them.
Alkharumi’s position is not unique in the UAL. Former lawmaker Masoud Ghanaim was firmly against joining the government and called on Abbas and the party leadership to withdraw support for the coalition, a position that even if symbolic, poses a challenge to UAL and to Abbas.
Starting Monday morning, if there is any move initiated by the government with regard to the Palestinians or Israeli Arab public that is perceived as an act of punishment or deterrence, Abbas and the other UAL lawmakers would be regarded as partners to it. On the other hand, Abbas must do what he’d promised, to truly influence decision-making and the policies of the Israeli government. Both for him and for the party, this will be a gamble for their political lives and that of the government.
If Abbas can show results in the field, and not just in TV studios, he will assume a major role in the leadership of the Arab community. But if he fails, not only will he fall apart politically, there will be far-reaching consequences for the Arab public’s confidence in the Israeli political system. What some people are now calling history could end up being a historic downfall.