This Time, Netanyahu (Accidentally) Did the Right Thing

Uzi Baram
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Benjamin Netanyahu and Joint List lawmaker Mansour Abbas.
Uzi Baram

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specializes in “strategic political terror attacks.” He excels in dismantling rival parties and systematically undermining military figures who are trying to reinvent themselves as potential leaders. (That’s why all the politicians who continue to woo these retired officers are perceived as obsolete.)

The “magician”’s latest trick is separating MK Mansour Abbas and the United Arab List party that he heads from the Joint List electoral alliance to which it belongs. Netanyahu’s goal is one more vote in the Knesset toward escaping prosecution. But Netanyahu made a strategic error. The move could hurt him, because it has paved the way for a situation in which any Arab elected official could become part of the government coalition or of any other political constellation.

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The exclusion of Arabs in general, and in the political arena in particular, did not of course begin with Likud governments. It is as old as the state itself. I still remember Taufik Ziad – the mayor of Nazareth, who had served in the Knesset nearly continuously since 1973 – telling me, at a meeting in the Tourism Ministry in 1993, that it was his first time in the office of an Israeli cabinet minister.

There have been political changes since then: In Israel’s Jewish community, we have seen the increasing power of the right. Not only is it not embarrassed by the exclusion of Arabs, it has even openly branded them as disloyal to the state. Kahol Lavan and Yisrael Beiteinu were pilloried for dared to consider linking up with the Joint List for a single vote in the Knesset.

The Joint List has become a political monopoly on the Arab community, but its declared positions do not always match those of the Arab street. During my tenure as chairman of the board of directors of the Israel Democracy Institute, we dealt with drawing up a draft constitution for the state by consensus. The Arab Knesset members objected to a constitution, which would be based on defining Israel as a Jewish-democratic state, even though it emphasized equality and full civil rights. Polls we conducted showed us that more than 60 percent of Israeli Arabs supported our proposal.

The same thing happened when the Joint List announced that its lawmakers would not participate in the funeral of former President Shimon Peres. At his shiva, I was amazed by the large number of Israeli Arab citizens – mayors, local and regional council heads and members of the clergy – who came to honor his memory.

The Mansour Abbas phenomenon was to be expected, though it became possible only after the historic achievement of the Joint List. The expectations of Arab voters were clear: The third largest party in the Knesset would join forces with the left and the center in order to replace the government. Arab voters, most of them, were sick and tired of being “less-than” even in the eyes of leaders of the moderate Jewish public.

Clearly Abbas is an opportunist. He is ready to cooperate with Netanyahu in spite of the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” the incitement against Arabs and the strengthening of the occupation. But Abbas represents broad sections of the Arab public who are longing to be part of the government and improve their socioeconomic situation. His actions, even if that is not what he intended, could very well contribute to the growing cooperation of the leaders of the Arab community in Israeli politics. The political results of cooperation between Abbas and Netanyahu could be far-reaching for everything concerning the establishment of legitimate relations between Jewish and Arab parties, even including the establishment of a joint party.

This is why Abbas’ actions are not a regrettable accident but rather a great opportunity. Netanyahu did the right thing this time.

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