Could Netanyahu's Curse on the Arab Community Become a Blessing?

Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann
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Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh confronts Netanyahu during a Knesset session, 2019.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh confronts Netanyahu during a Knesset session, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Carolina Landsmann
Carolina Landsmann

There are some things only the right can do. Only the right can give back territory and evacuate settlements in return for peace – and stay alive and in power. Only the right can sign normalization agreements in return for selling advanced weaponry to Arabs without being considered traitors. “Don’t give them rifles,” they shouted at Rabin and his government back then. Now it turns out that everything was just one big misunderstanding. They simply meant to say: “Give them F-35 warplanes.”

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The same goes for political cooperation with the Arabs in government. Prime Minister Benjamin (“The Arabs are flocking to the polls”) Netanyahu has recently invested a great deal of effort into drawing in close the United Arab List (Ra’am) and its leader, Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas. And the right, which thinks that forming a narrow left-wing coalition that relies on Arabs is an act of betrayal of the country, has kept silent. What’s considered to “be murdered and do not transgress” when it comes to the left is permitted and even desirable when it comes to the right.

Abbas has been hit with criticism from colleagues who think that cooperation with Netanyahu is illegitimate because of the incitement, racism, the occupation and corruption. Abbas denies that he’ll sell out his colleagues to serve Netanyahu in his flight from the law. “I want to be part of the political game, and don’t have to be in anyone’s pocket,” he explained.

This is not the first time the right wing and the Arabs have cooperated. The Arab parties voted with the right for dissolving the Knesset and calling a new election, and supported Netanyahu’s appointment of Matanyahu Englman as state comptroller. This cooperation is not spontaneous; it’s strategic. Last year Netanyahu’s senior aide Nathan Eshel published two articles with the same message: The right must offer Israeli Arabs a political alliance.

>> Read more: Israel's right must stop splintering - and reach out to the Arab community | Opinion : Nathan Eshel

Netanyahu knows that the biggest threat to the rule of the right is the Arab vote. That is why his strategy focuses on making them illegitimate and preventing the creation of a coalition that includes them. The left-wing camp, in its weakness, fell into that trap and feared cooperating with the Arabs, even when they were willing to politically support Benny Gantz, the army chief during the Gaza war of 2014, who opened his election campaign with a video touting his successes with footage from “Black Friday,” that war’s most deadly day.

As we have seen, those who are afraid don’t win. It is easy to identify with the criticism of Abbas from his colleagues. But when the critics are those who didn’t dare to cooperate with the Arabs when the time came, or preferred Israeli Yair Golan over Arab Israeli Esawi Freige, or were racists about “the Zoabis” – then it starts to be a problem.

But we never know how things turn out. Take, for example, the Israeli right wing and the evangelicals, both of whom are convinced that the other is the donkey of their messiah. Which is the real donkey, only God knows. Or Avigdor Lieberman’s attempt to damage the Arabs’ political representation by raising the electoral threshold, which turned out to be their most important political catalyst.

Avishai Ben Haim is convinced that the second Israel - a phrase used to describe the country's socially disadvantaged - has used Netanyahu more than Netanyahu has used the second Israel. And indeed it’s impossible to argue with the fact that Netanyahu transferred enormous political power into the hands of the Mizrahim and opened locked doors for them, even if it was an act of profiteering from their struggle. What begins as a cynical act of cooperation can develop in unexpected directions that in the end provide legitimacy to Arab political representation.

I have no doubts that like in the story of Balaam, Netanyahu came to curse and not to bless. But it’s possible that history plans to deceive him once again, and he will find himself blessing in the end – to the sounds of the glass ceiling of Arab representation in the government breaking.