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Only Israel’s Arabs Can Unite Israel’s Jews

Zvi Bar'el
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Joint List leaders Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh.
Joint List leaders Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Zvi Bar'el

Without Israel’s Arabs the Jewish state has no shared national identity. Take Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, which changes its position every week on the Joint List of Arab parties.

Kahol Lavan is supposedly the party that draws the line between rational Zionism and fanatical messianism, between clean politics and muck and corruption, between a chance for peace and a continuation of the occupation. But this party doesn’t know its own mind when it comes to “the peace process” with Israel’s Arabs: To ask for the Joint List’s support and appear stained by treason, or keep its distance from Arab Israelis as if they were infected with the coronavirus.

In a poll published Monday by Channel 13, a question was asked that under normal circumstances would make you gag: Would a government supported by the Arabs be considered legitimate? Forty-four percent said it would, 33 percent said it wouldn’t.

Wow, what a liberal electorate. The other respondents, as usual, had no opinion. Let’s assume half are convinced that a government “with Arabs” isn’t legitimate and thus the gap between the “liberals” and the “patriots” closes.

We can imagine the hue and cry if such a question were asked in the United States about African Americans, in France about people from North Africa or in Britain about the Jews. But in Israel the question is considered legitimate because it’s perceived as a political question, not one of values. It was born out of the unbridled, detestable campaign of anti-Arab incitement led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his gang against Kahol Lavan, which is now known as “Gantz.”

But the very idea of removing the Arabs from Israel’s political fabric stems from a worldview and is a direct extension of the racist legislation that not only shapes Israel’s image as a Jewish state but also reflects the views that have become entrenched in society here in recent decades.

The 10 years in which Israel has been imprisoned in a right-wing government – which has become extreme to the point of crazed messianism – have created a mold into which the government is ladling national Jewish identity. But this identity hasn’t yet helped find the essential common denominator for the whole national community.

Judaism, which supposedly could act as a unifier, has lost its meaning. Jews in Israel are divided between those who serve in the army and those who dodge it, between the ultra-Orthodox and the nationalist ultra-Orthodox, between religious Zionists and secular Zionists, between settlers and citizens of the state, between “Russians” and “Ethiopians” and between Jews of Tel Aviv and the rest of the country.

Even an external enemy – a well-known tool for building national identity – has been unable to close the internal rifts – because the Jews of the Gaza border aren’t the same as the Jews of Haifa or Modi’in. Even Iran, considered an existential enemy of Israel, hasn’t led to the establishment of a unity government.

But a miracle has happened to Israel. It possesses a national asset unparalleled for the creation of national identity: an Arab minority of about 20 percent that seals all rifts, ends all disputes, creates extraordinary brotherhood among political rivals and determines the level of patriotism for every Jewish citizen. The more Israeli politics is corralled into the two major parties – and because there’s no difference between Kahol Lavan and Likud on the basic issues – the more both parties will base their legitimacy on their distance from the internal enemy.

This common denominator will remain the base on which any future government relies, whether headed by Likud or Kahol Lavan. There’s no longer a need to say why the Arabs can’t be partners. They have to be outside, remain a target and “play the enemy” because only they can unite Israel’s Jews.

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