Since the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the left has been afraid to form a political alliance with Arab parties. For good reason. The objection to the Oslo Accords and the bitter outcry in the streets against giving up land were mixed with criticism that Rabin’s minority government lacked legitimacy because it existed only with the support of the Arab parties’ five legislators on the outside.
The Oslo Accords’ opponents protested that Rabin didn’t have a “Jewish majority,” which they maintained was required to concede part of the homeland in a peace deal. “They don’t have a mandate,” they accused. Everyone knows how it ended.
This fear is so deep that even Israel’s most decorated soldier, Ehud Barak, who won in the 1999 election, didn’t dare take the risk. This sentiment isn’t unique to assassin Yigal Amir or those who vigorously protested against Olso and Rabin. This sentiment is prevalent in Israel and can be phrased more or less like this: Israel is a democratic country and its Arab citizens have the right to vote and be elected, but they don’t have security clearance; that is, they’re outside the circle of decision-making on existential issues.
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Only a year ago, after the third election, Benjamin Netanyahu stood up and simplified this sentiment into numbers. On a whiteboard in the Knesset, he divided up the blocs based on the number of Knesset seats each had won, but excluded the Joint List of Arab parties.
“The nation’s decision is clear. The right-wing Zionist camp consists of 58 Knesset seats. The Zionist left, together with Lieberman who has joined it, consists of 47 Knesset seats,” he said, referring to Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. “The Joint List ... they of course aren’t included in this equation and this was the nation’s will ... this is the nation’s decision.”
The message is clear: Israel’s Arab citizens can go to the polls in droves or not, it makes no difference because their legislators aren’t considered legitimate for forming a coalition, even from the outside. Those aren’t real legislators. They’re like Monopoly money. You can’t buy anything with them, only play at “democracy.” So Benny Gantz, who considered using the Arab Knesset members, was accused by Netanyahu: “Gantz is trying to steal the election.” Steal the election from the Jews, that is.
Notice Netanyahu’s choice of words: the nation’s decision. Not the people’s decision or the majority’s decision. This is a critical distinction in Israel, because the nation-state law showed unequivocally that in Israel there is no congruence between the citizens or the public and “the nation.” When Netanyahu says “the nation’s decision,” he means the Jewish nation. The nation’s decision is synonymous with a Jewish majority. France belongs to the French, Germany to the Germans. Israel doesn’t belong to the Israelis but to the Jews.
That’s why the move Netanyahu, of all people, is leading, to form a right-wing government based on a civic majority rather than a Jewish one has the potential to effect real political change – immeasurably more than a similar move on the left. After all, such a foray on the right, like signing a peace agreement, will receive legitimacy from the left and actually lean on both a civic and Jewish majority.
It’s extremely frustrating that the right, Netanyahu in particular, has the power to validate or legitimize moves and ideas that the left was persecuted and even murdered for – that the right is allowed what the left is forbidden.
Also, Netanyahu is a political crook – chances are he’s bluffing; it’s not clear if his partners will go along with it, and so on. All that is known. But for the good of the cause we should put the leftist ego aside, say a prayer that circumstances haven’t left Netanyahu any choice and hope that due to the complete confidence his camp has in him, he’ll bring them closer to the valley of civic equality.