Netanyahu, Longtime Inciter Against the Arabs, Is the New National Legitimizer

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Members of the Joint List celebrating the opposition's victory in the Knesset on Tuesday.

Israel has escaped its political impasse but has fallen into political vertigo. The categories “right” and “left” are no longer useful to anyone trying to accurately read the political map. Tell me that you’re right-wing or left-wing and I’ll tell you I don’t have a clue what you think about anything.

You’d need an interpreter to understand what happened in the Knesset on Wednesday. The Arab parties’ Joint List submitted a motion to establish a parliamentary committee to probe “the police’s failures in dealing with organized crime in the Arab community.”

The motion’s sponsor, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh, naturally tried to recruit support from members of the “left” in the governing coalition. But they preferred to uphold their coalition agreements.

And that’s how something truly incredible happened: Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party voted in favor, while Arab members of the coalition from United Arab List and Meretz voted against. As a result, the motion was defeated 57-54.

United Arab List and Meretz preferred coalition discipline to ideological discipline. The members of the former even proved they’re more loyal to the “professional” team they’re playing for than to their national team.

This is a direct continuation of the previous week’s bizarre vote on extending a temporary amendment to the Citizenship Law that bars most Palestinian spouses of Israelis from obtaining residency rights. Then, too, Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties joined forces with the Joint List to defeat the bill, which was the (un)constitutional apple of the nationalist right’s eye, while members of the United Arab List and Meretz voted for a slightly improved version of it.

It’s very bizarre, but it’s revolutionary. After years of delegitimizing and inciting against Arab voters and Knesset members, Netanyahu and Likud have created a distinction between the United Arab List and the Joint List, which UAL was part of until the last election. The former is kosher, but the latter is unacceptable.

The message was that everything previously said about the Arabs – their “support for terrorists” and so on – remains valid, but the United Arab List is different. You can do business with them.

In fact, the kosher certificate that Netanyahu awarded the United Arab List is what paved its way into Naftali Bennett’s government. And now, when Netanyahu, Likud, the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs of the Joint List find themselves in the same opposition boat, something of incomparable importance is happening.

Against his will, and for all the wrong reasons, Netanyahu is continuing his historical mission. He is completing the process of legitimizing the Arabs’ political representatives by legitimizing political cooperation with the Joint List as well. Yes, really, he of all people – the national inciter notorious for “the Arabs are going to the polls in droves.” Apparently, God has a sense of humor.

And indeed, the Arabs’ political power has grown. If the chairman of the United Arab List, Mansour Abbas, is “the de facto prime minister,” as Netanyahu accused Bennett, one could say that Ayman Odeh is the de facto opposition leader.

Indeed, by defeating the amendment to the Citizenship Law – which, from the standpoint of “life itself” is no less important than the nation-state law – Odeh has racked up the most significant achievement in recent years both for the Arab minority and for strengthening Israeli democracy.

Anyone who understands that Israel’s future depends on the ability of Jews and Arabs to find a way to live in peace and genuine partnership can find hope in these bizarre political processes. Granted, it’s happening due to the constraints of the moment, not ideology; if Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties were in power, they would have voted for extending the temporary amendment and against the parliamentary committee of inquiry.

But what difference does that make? They found themselves in the same boat, and they have a shared interest in working together. Maybe it’s our political subconscious at work, maybe it’s fate, maybe it’s a historical necessity. Who knows?

Over the long term, the fact that these parties are working with the Joint List – the backslapping in the Knesset, the jokes, the overnight filibusters, the processes of legitimization and the public normalization – are more important than the reason they’re working together. The muscles of Jewish-Arab cooperation are getting stronger before our eyes.

We should welcome this. Legitimization is a process, not just a word.

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