Opinion

By Appointing an Arab Health Minister, Netanyahu Can Change the Way He'll Be Remembered

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Netanyahu gives a speech ahead of elections in March in front of screens showing his campaign slogan "Gantz doesn't have a government without Ahmed Tibi," February 2020.
Netanyahu gives a speech ahead of elections in March in front of screens showing his campaign slogan "Gantz doesn't have a government without Ahmed Tibi," February 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

There is one step that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can take now that could still change the way he will go down in history. There’s probably no chance that he will take it, but nevertheless he could repair a small amount of the damage he has done and leave behind a surprising legacy. After all of his savage incitement against Israeli Arabs, Netanyahu could invite their representatives, the Knesset members of the Joint List, to join the emergency government that will presumably be formed and he could assign them to cabinet positions, in keeping with their skills. It is impossible to overstate the significance of such a move, particularly in light of the unprecedented atmosphere of anti-Arab racism in Israel today.

It is not clear why an emergency government is necessary. The scope of the panic in Israel over the spread of the new coronavirus and the harsh measures that have been taken, whether excessive or justified, can only be judged in hindsight. A broad government is not necessary in order to fight the epidemic; it isn’t as if there are two camps in Israel, one for the coronavirus and the other against, and no country has changed the composition of its government because of COVID-19. But as an emergency government seems to be the only way to break the political impasse, it is for the best that it be established. Bringing in the Joint List – not because of Benny Gantz’s demands but rather at Netanyahu’s initiative – could turn out to be a game changer. In an instant it would clear the turbid, dangerous atmosphere, change the position of the country’s Arabs and perhaps also the fate of the prime minister. More than all the tricks he has used in the past this move could redeem him, at least in terms of the impression he will leave behind.

These are the darkest days the state has ever seen. Never before have Israeli Arabs been portrayed in such a satanic light. Never before have so many other Israelis feared and hated them. Netanyahu isn’t the only culprit here. There’s no shortage of racists and inciters in any of the Zionist parties – including the ones who are now attacking Netanyahu over his racism, such as Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid, who coined the term “Zoabis” (after former Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi). Fear of the Joint List has fallen upon the Israelis. Netanyahu conducted the orchestra, the right stirred up racism as is its wont, Kahol Lavan sent in its soloists and even the Labor Party failed to stand in the breach. The result: The Joint List – whose lawmakers are among the most impressive in the Knesset, whose platform does not pose a danger to anyone in Israel, whose influence on any government would be minuscule – became an existential threat.

The stone cast by a thousand racist Israelis will be difficult to retrieve from the well. There is only one way to heal the wounds: by inviting the heads of the parties making up the Joint List – Ayman Odeh, Mtanes Shehadeh, Ahmad Tibi and Mansour Abbas – to join the temporary emergency government as partners. Instead of “Bibi or Tibi,” it will be Bibi and Tibi. If Netanyahu proposes this, he will purify the nests of racism that he distributed. No one in his party would dare to defy him – after all, we are talking about the war on the coronavirus. Kahol Lavan will be forced to join, while its right-wingers remain behind, shunned, together with Orli Levi-Abekasis. This will be a unity government like no other in Israel’s history: For the first time ever, a government that represents all Israelis. For the first time, an egalitarian democracy. For the first time there will truly be 120 legislators in the Knesset, not 105. The government’s raison d’etre, the fight against corona, will temporarily overshadow all the disagreements.

The MKs of the Joint List will not have to lend their hands to the crimes of the occupation, the Zionist majority will not have to recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This will be a temporary government with one goal.

For once, the health minister could actually be a physician: The Knesset’s only medical doctors are Tibi and Abbas – not a trivial matter in these troubled times. A successful Arab health minister today will do more to change public opinion than a thousand Arab pharmacists in Israel’s biggest drugstore chain. To Israelis who are wary of Arabs, it can be promised that every single Joint List lawmaker will faithfully and carefully discharge all of their duties. The devil will turn out to be not so dark as he was painted, the inciters’ lies about the threat to national security posed by Arab citizens will be refuted one after another – and Israel will give thanks to God for the new coronavirus. A dream? Presumably.

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