Bennett and the experiment – Israel in transition

Naftali Bennett already entered the history books as the shortest serving PM of the state. Clearly, he wanted to have his entry under more glorious circumstances. He may still gain this as we shall reflect on his term with the hindsight of time and perspective. Never a dull moment in Israel, and judging the politics of the state is like being in rollercoaster, but it is still not too early to refer to the EXPERIMENT and Bennett’s handling of it. Nir Urbach, an anonymous MK from Bennett’s Yamina party, a supporter of the settlement movement referred to his decision to defect from the coalition to the opposition, a decision leading to the new elections in Israel, by saying that ”the EXPERIMENT” failed. So, what is this EXPERIMENT? It is the first ever participation of an Islamist Arab party Ra’am in a coalition government, even being the party whose support enabled the very establishment of the government. And all this in a government consisting of three self- declared Right Wing parties [Yamina, New Hope and Israel Beitenu], led by no other than the former leader of the settlement movement, Naftali Bennett. What seemed only a couple of years ago as a political fantasy, never to take place proved a reality.

Here is where the story really starts to be a typical Israeli political story, with its twists and turns, because the first Israeli politician to start the process concerning Ra’am was none other than Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, the self-styled leader of the National Camp in Israel who now castigating Bennett for doing it. Netanyahu started the negotiations with the courageous leader of Ra’am Mansour Abbas when he realized that he may need his votes in the Knesset , and then he offered him Mountains and hills, but Abbas realized, that Netanyahu’s words were not worth his trust and opted to go with an alternative coalition. It is the time now to analyze what Netanyahu talked about but did not do. IT IS THE traditional Likud policy, IF Likud is indeed continues the tradition of Jabotinsky and Begin, to be the party offering opening to Israeli Arabs.

It was the great Ze’ev Jabotinsky who envisaged a Jewish state whose PM could be an Arab, it was Menachem Begin who led the struggle against the military administration imposed on Israeli Arab citizens until 1966, so Netanyahu could base himself on solid ideological ground advocating Arab participation in the government. But, he did not, because Netanyahu, in the moment of truth, proved to be a politician, a survivalist, rather than a visionary leader. In fact, Netanyahu opted to be what he has always been, a politician afraid of big decisions, a weakness particularly important when relating to the longest serving PM in the history of Israel. Yet, there is one point regarding the Netanyahu-Abbas negotiations which does give the former PM a lot of credit. Netanyahu did observe correctly, that there is a process happening among Israeli Arabs, which may lead to important political changes, and for him, with all his previous demagogy about Israeli Arabs[Remember his comment in 2015 about they ”all run to vote”] to enter into dialogue with Abbas, though for his own immediate political interest, amounts to be the breaking of a glass ceiling. And here is where the REAL story is. It is about time, perhaps very late, but better late than ever, for the State of Israel to address seriously and honestly the question of how to deal with 20 percent of its citizens.

In a way, Netanyahu dug into the Pandora box opened by Abbas. This is not the place in this piece, to address the complicated, fraught question of Israeli Arabs in a Jewish-Zionist state, and not because I, for one, question the need for Israel to remain a Jewish state in fulfillment of Zionism. Israel should forever stay the nation state of the Jewish people, but here is the catch. Israel is a strong country, Israel is a major story of achievement, Zionism is a viable successful idea, and what can validate it more than the growing process of peace and normalization between Israel and many Arab and Muslim states, which is happening even when the Palestinian national movement is still, at least partly, in a state of war with Israel. So, what CAN be discussed here is the fact, that with that happening, Israel should have no fear to tackle head on the question of its Arab minority and its role in the state. Mansour Abbas offered exactly that, Netanyahu seemed to be up to the challenge, but was not, and that brings us to Naftali Bennett.

Naftali Bennett made a ton of political mistakes before he became a PM, and surely during his short term. He acted however as a LEADER when he crossed the RUBICON and agreed to a coalition with Ra’am, in fact to be dependent on their votes. He had his personal, political, national reasons for that, and animosity to Netanyahu and personal ambition were there, but what matters is the decision he made, and it was a decision of courage, the one that Netanyahu was running away from all his years as PM. The year of Bennett was surely a typical year in Israeli politics-trials and tribulations, victories and failures, and it is in the eye of beholder to decide what is the way to sum it all up, but I personally will NOT categorize the Ra’am EXPERIMENT as a failure. Let me be honest about that-a lot of what Abbas and colleagues said brought up my blood pressure, as well as some of the moves made by Bennett in order to mollify and Appease Ra’am. That said, here is an obvious political lesson-Great changes are not easy to come by, not a matter of an abra cadabra magic. They entail many components connected with the ability of individual politicians and political movements to adapt themselves to changing circumstances. Urbach, Idit Silman and Shikli , all members of the Yamina party showed that they were not up to that. So was the case with Netanyahu, and clearly with 2-3 of Abbas own colleagues, let alone the Joint Arab list, but here is what to we can already conclude.

The long journey started, Bennet can feel proud about that, and with the polls regarding the new elections are as they are, no one should rule out the possibility that Netanyahu himself will renew the contact with Abbas-Netanyahu, after all, is hailed as a political wizard, so with him around, who knows what can happen.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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