Israel’s Arab citizens are so fed up with Benjamin Netanyahu they’re willing to endorse an army general who once boasted about the number of Palestinians he killed in Gaza.
On Sunday, in a dramatic departure from long-standing positions, 10 members of the Joint List, the majority-Arab coalition that won the third-most Parliament seats in Israel’s recent elections, recommended that Benny Gantz, leader of the center-right Blue and White Party, be Israel’s next leader.
It was a remarkable power play in an Israeli political system that has long suppressed and dismissed its Palestinian minority, and a bold gamble that getting rid of Netanyahu could improve their lives no matter the trade-off.
“Enough is enough”
“In the years under Netanyahu’s regime, we have seen enough incitement, violence discrimination and hate in Israeli society against Palestinian citizens,” said Samah Salaime, a feminist activist and spokesperson for a shared Arab-Jewish village. “Enough is enough.”
But while the effort marks a historic attempt to wrest power from Netanyahu, it’s also far from clear whether it will work. Even with the Joint List’s recommendation, Gantz, a former Israeli military chief of staff, does not presently have enough support to form a coalition.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is already trying to exploit the announcement to weaken his chief rival, stoking fear that the decision is a harbinger of a future Gantz-led government that leaves him out and includes those who “glorify terrorists.” Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, largely understood as the “kingmaker” who could determine the next prime minister, said he would never sit in a government with his “enemies” in the Joint List.
“The right-wing is now leveraging this everywhere,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and expert on Israeli public opinion. “Netanyahu is pumping this out on his Twitter feed: ‘It’s like I warned, we’re going to have a government with Arabs who are anti-Zionist, anti-Israel.’”
The extreme rhetoric hints at just how far to the right Israel’s political mainstream has lurched in recent years, and the tricky road that both Gantz and Netanyahu must navigate in their bid to build Israel’s next government. It also highlights the considerable political risk Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, is taking by backing Gantz.
“The right-wing is now leveraging this everywhere”
Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens are largely descendants of survivors of the Nakba, the Arabic term for “catastrophe,” which Palestinians use to describe their forced displacement at the hands of Israeli forces in 1948, when the country was founded. (Another 4.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza while 400,000 live in East Jerusalem.) Since then, Israeli Jewish parties have not included independent Palestinian parties in governing coalitions because of Palestinian opposition to Israel’s status as a state that privileges Jews over Arabs.
That’s not about to change now. Odeh, said the bloc would not be a member of Blue and White’s coalition because Gantz has not made a commitment on a core political demand: that he promote equality for Palestinian citizens.
But that doesn’t mean Odeh still can’t help Gantz. The Joint List could still provide Gantz’s coalition with votes in the Knesset to beat back any no-confidence votes designed to bring Gantz down.
There could also be some material benefits to Arab citizens that come from Odeh’s recommendation. Arik Rudinitsky, a researcher on Arab-Jewish relations at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Odeh’s historic move could, if Gantz becomes prime minister, result in a government willing to invest more in Arab communities beset by crime and unemployment.
“They’re signaling to the Arab public that you voted for a reason,” said Rudinitsky.
But because three members of Balad, a party in the Joint List, refused to endorse Gantz, the former general only has 54 recommendations that he become prime minister to Netanyahu’s 55. Israeli president Reuven Rivlin now has to decide who will get the first crack at forming a governing coalition, unless Gantz and Netanyahu agree to form a unity government.
On Monday, Gantz and Netanyahu met for the first time since Israel’s elections, a gathering that Israel’s president said resulted in “significant steps” over the formation of a new government, which could see both Gantz and Netanyahu serving together.
“We have big dreams about this move”
The opposition of Balad, a Palestinian nationalist party and Joint List member, to Gantz reflects deep Palestinian dismay with the general and a sense that Odeh’s decision was a betrayal of principles with no clear pay-off.
“[Odeh] always talked about defeating Bibi. He is dangerous. But he did not mention that Gantz is dangerous too,” said Inas al-Khateeb, a Balad member and Palestinian activist.
But for other Palestinian citizens, Odeh’s decision is a one-of-a-kind chance to flex Arab political power in a state long hostile to them.
“If we change this government, maybe we will manage to change incitement and the discrimination laws against Palestinians,” said Salaime, the feminist activist and writer. “We have big dreams about this move.”
Cover: In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 file photo, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, left, Esther Hayut, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a memorial service for former President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)
Alex Kane is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties issues.