The Road to Becoming Israeli Prime Minister Runs Through Arab Towns

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay says he won't sit in a coalition government with the Arab Joint List – he'd better rethink if he wants to lead the country

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A procession in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin.
A procession in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin. Credit: Gil Eliahu
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

When Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay announces that he will not serve in the same government as the Joint List, he is basically giving up on ever being elected prime minister. After all, if the ticket of Arab parties doesn’t support him, he has no chance of forming a government here, since the far right has a majority among the Jewish population.

There are those who say Gabbay’s declaration on Saturday is a tactical move, aimed at increasing his chances of winning the premiership. He is signaling that he’s made of nationalist, anti-Arab stuff, in the same way that previous Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog said one cannot be portrayed as an Arab-lover. They say it’s all part of a brilliant maneuver: On the eve of the election Gabbay will exclude the Arabs, but when it comes to assembling a government, he’ll hook up with them and win the coveted role.

So let’s make something clear, Gabbay: Any masquerading as right-wing will distance you from the premiership. The public is indeed nationalist, but it isn’t stupid. It will prefer the original.

On the other hand, some say that with his exclusionary declaration, Gabbay is willingly conceding the premiership and grooming himself instead to be part of a future right-wing coalition.

We should remember that, under totally different circumstances in 1999, the directly elected prime minister, Ehud Barak, preferred the right-wing National Religious Party as a partner over representatives of the Arab population that gave him 95 percent of its votes.

I’m betting this is also Gabbay’s intention. He is preparing himself to be part of the family. When journalist Roy Katz asked him – at that same Be’er Sheva event at which he made his vile declaration – about his proficiency in English (after a Netanyahu associate raised this racist concern), instead of dismissing the question, Gabbay launched into a monologue in fluent English, as if he was a high-school student seeking to prove his ability to a favorite teacher. Gabbay, you’ve passed the test: Your Moroccan background won’t be an obstacle in advancing to the right-wing ivory tower.

Meanwhile, the Arabs are expected to say to each other, “Shhhh quiet, don’t bother Gabbay. Our hero is mocking the enemy; we must suffer the insults and blows in silence. That’s the price we must pay to achieve our goal.”

The problem is that even if the Arabs respond politely, Gabbay’s remarks poison the atmosphere – as if the damage caused by the noise from the racist right chorus isn’t enough.

Anyway, let’s recall another fact: The Arab population and the sane Jews in Israel have a mutual interest in getting rid of the far right. Here, no one is doing anyone any favors. The Arab population needs democratic allies, and the sane Jews who want to form a humane society need the Arab population. A partnership can be built on this basis.

It must be made clear to Gabbay that the Labor Party chairman’s train to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem runs through Arab cities. This is the same train – real, not metaphorical – that the right-wing government made sure would never enter Arab towns. There’s probably a connection between the two. Perhaps I will elaborate on this scientific discovery in the future.

Gabbay’s remarks have angered Arabs and sane Jews. But we can’t lose our bearings. We must act with all our might to make it clear to everyone that this partnership is crucial.

The Arabs say, “The large pot can hold the smaller one.” Gabbay is still a political novice and he’ll learn, but we can still whisper in his ear: Have you already started training partners to disqualify others? Moreover, for the Arabs, another disqualification will make no difference. All their lives they’ve been illegitimate coalition partners. And there’s a long road to travel before you get asked to form a government, if at all.

For now, it would be best if Gabbay dealt with the right-wing monster. You needn’t worry; at any point, the Arabs will be in the right place. Read a little history, Gabbay; it might do you some good.

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