David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

Arabs hand Netanyahu another term as PM

Palestinian protests derail unity government talks, allowing prime minister’s most unforgiveable crime – sowing divisiveness within Israeli society – to go unpunished.

May 10. Jerusalem Day. The city feels as divided as ever and the nation even more so.

In a stunning turn of events, and in an extraordinarily similar replay of what transpired 25 years ago, Arab protests in Jerusalem have granted Benjamin Netanyahu a reprieve from his anticipated ouster as prime minister.

Those old enough to remember will recall that it was the 1996 general election for prime minister that gave birth to the expression, “we went to bed with Peres and woke up with Bibi.” A campaign that had begun between the two rivals with a 20% lead for the former, and exit polls predicting his victory, ended up with his opponent garnering 50.5% of the popular vote. That pivotal 1% edge that brought Netanyahu to power is widely attributed to a series of horrific suicide attacks masterminded by Hamas that claimed the lives of 59 innocent victims.

This time around, while the political pundits were busy placing their bets on the formation of a unity government led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, following Netanyahyu’s failure to hammer together a right-wing coalition, Arab protests, Israel’s response and the ensuing escalation between the two sides were stubbornly undermining their predictions.  

Reminders of Arab nationalistic aspirations – violent or otherwise – have always intensified right-wing sentiments in Israeli society, as well as accentuating the differences in approach between Israeli parties at opposite ends of the political spectrum to resolving the Palestinian question. That was certainly the case over the last few days, when clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces on the Temple Mount, in Sheikh Jarrah and at the Damascus Gate made it impossible for leaders of the parties working towards a unity government to ignore the fundamental differences between them. That, and the threat of a mutiny among his party’s Knesset members, led one of the figures key to forming the coalition that would have replaced the Netanyahu government to return to negotiations with the Likud.

While in this last electoral campaign Netanyahu had all along banked on the Arabs to keep him in power, it is doubtful that even he could have imagined they would do so in such a convoluted manner.

Dated tomorrow, the scenario described above has not yet materialized, and I have every hope — if not every confidence — that it never will. But even the vague possibility of such a development is what makes the effort to form a unity government so important, and so right. All of Israel, and supporters of Israel everywhere, should welcome its establishment.

Political expediency aside, I concur wholeheartedly with Yair Lapid’s statement upon receiving the mandate from President Rivlin to muster a 61-member majority of support in the Knesset. “A unity government isn’t a compromise or a last resort – it’s what we need,” he said, “a government that will reflect that we don’t hate one another… that will show our differences are a source of strength, not weakness.”

Ironically, no one has made that clearer than Netanyahu himself. The prime minister’s last crime, and in my estimation his most unforgiveable, is the divisiveness that he has sown in Israeli society. His demonization of those who oppose him, his delegitimization of the sacred foundations of our democracy – the media and the judiciary, and his hubristic attitude of “l’etat, c’est moi” have created a deeply antagonistic atmosphere of acrimony and animosity that our beleaguered country – confronting severe health, economic, social and security issues simultaneously – can ill-afford.

The first test, then, of the unity government in formation is taking place in real-time, and over the thorniest of all issues – the relationship of the nation state of the Jewish people to its Arab citizens and its Arab neighbors. And it is a particularly trying test to deal with in the current circumstances, as a majority coalition will only emerge with the backing of the Arab parties elected to the Knesset.

That in itself, while anathema to some, should be a welcome development for all true Zionists. Jewish exclusivity within the Land of Israel was never a tenet of any mainstream Zionist ideology, while democracy has been fundamental to them all. Looking again to the 1996 elections, the Arab parties were then represented by nine members of Knesset. Today they are represented by ten. It is an embarrassment to our cause that a quarter of a century had to pass between the two referendums, and nearly a century longer than that since the First Zionist Congress, for a Government of Israel to be formed that would relate with true equality to  our Arab citizens. For some that may be difficult to swallow, but I have no doubt that doing so will go a long way to nourishing the Zionist dream.

I don’t delude myself into believing that the sort of unity government I champion here would have come about were it not a practical necessity for all involved. I would like to believe, however, that necessity may sometimes be not only the mother of invention, but also of welcome progress and innovation. I hope that is something we will all be able to celebrate as the elected leaders of those seeking a return to good and honest government continue to focus on the goal of serving the people who elected them, the differences between them notwithstanding.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.
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