Opinion

Center-left Better Beat a Path to Israel's Arabs Before the Right Wing Does

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List, in the plenum at the knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem December 26, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Nathan Eshel, the Balfour Street mover and shaker and former bureau chief of the prime minister, also known for snapping pictures of women’s skirts from down below, recently published two columns. One was in Haaretz, the other in the national-religious publication Makor Rishon. Both featured the same revolutionary message: The Israeli right wing should offer to forge a political alliance with the country’s Arab citizens.

Benjamin Netanyahu understands well that the biggest threat to the right wing’s rule is Arab voters. When he thought he was about to lose the election in 2015, he shared his fears with the public: “Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are turning out in droves at the polls. Leftist groups are bringing them by bus.” And in fact his strategy in recent years has focused on delegitimizing Arab citizens and their representatives, and in the process preventing the formation of coalitions that include them.

The center-left fell into Netanyahu’s trap and eschewed political contact with the Arabs. Its leaders carefully declared that they would never form a coalition with Arab parties, or even team up with them to block the creation of a right-wing government. At its peak, the Arab Joint List had 13 Knesset seats, meaning 13 seats that went to waste.

After reducing Israeli Arabs’ political capital to nothing and causing the left to shrug it off, now Netanyahu will be trying to buy Arab political capital on the cheap and build an empire. In campaiging for the September election, he will try to draw Arabs away from the left and form an alliance with them, just like the one he has with the ultra-Orthodox. After all, only Likud can make peace, and only the right can form a coalition with Arab parties.

This is how Netanyahu, through Eshel, explains things to the right-wing camp: “Israeli Arabs are the solution, not the problem.” (In Makor Rishon). The plan: “We must tie our fate to that of Israel’s Arabs.” (Haaretz, June 18).”

Nathan Eshel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former chief of staff, who has been accused of sexual harassment, in the Knesset, May 13, 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

In Makor Rishon, there was also an addendum, meant to allay security-related fears: “They don’t need to be Zionists and stand at attention on Memorial Day. They do have to be 100-percent loyal to the State of Israel, which, in exchange, will give them full rights.”

Netanyahu is interested in reaping the benefits from a crisis in relations between the left and Israeli Arabs that he himself stoked through well-orchestrated incitement. “They feel that the left exploited them for decades and used them as political cannon fodder,” Eshel wrote in Haaretz. For right-wing readers of Makor Rishon, he added some venom to the mix: “They developed hatred and a lack of trust in the Israeli left, after being sorely disappointed in it over the years.”

This is not a vision from the end-of-days. Arab parties collaborated with the right twice in the last two months, at critical junctures. They voted with the right to dissolve the Knesset and, according to political sources, they supported the right wing’s candidate for state comptroller, Matanyahu Englman. Via Eshel, Netanyahu makes it clear that “Israeli Arabs are no longer in the Israeli left’s pocket.”

It’s astounding that we need Eshel to put two and two together. Netanyahu and the right, which hounded Kahol Lavan in the last election campaign for planning to join forces with the Arab parties, so as to make it impossible for the right to form a government, didn’t hesitate to do that themselves to prevent Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz from getting a chance from the president to form a ruling coalition.

This is a living example of the secret of Netanyahu’s success. Like every ingenious idea that’s ahead of its time, it was initially met with opposition. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win,” explained Mahatma Gandhi, according to Donald Trump’s tweet.

In fact, we saw how Trump won the presidency the same way, and this is precisely the process that we will be witness to unless the left gets real. For the meantime, however, things don’t look good: Haaretz employees protested the publication of Eshel’s column. He may be Netanyahu’s closest associate, but he’s first and foremost a sexual harasser. Maybe Trump should be censored too.

In Haaretz, Amos Biderman responded with a very clever political cartoon, and commentator B. Michael laughed at Eshel’s suggestion, which he deemed pretty amusing. One would hope, however, that after trying to ignore it, after it stops laughing at it, the center-left is able to openly approach the country’s Arabs and offer them a real democratic partnership. Otherwise, the loss will have long-term repercussions. Just as when the center-left lost the support of the country's ultra-Orthodox community.