Dan Perry
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Go with the Arabs, Gantz

Nobody thinks bringing the Joint List into government is without challenge, but it's courageous and practical, as blackballing Arab Israelis is not sustainable
The Joint List leadership. (Flash90)

If any Israeli politician conjures up a government without a third election, some flexibility will be needed on somebody’s part. Finesse will be a premium. Some courage wouldn’t hurt. Put another way, pledges must be binned. Wouldn’t it be nice if the humble pie was also cool?

The list of possible comedowns includes, first and foremost, Avigdor Liberman agreeing to rejoin the Haredim and the assorted gallery of fanatics (some of whom want religious law to reign supreme) gathered under the banner of Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. That would not be very cool and it would surprise many of his voters, but I do not rule it out. If Netanyahu fails, it will mean this storm has passed.

It could also include Blue and White’s Benny Gantz or Labour’s Amir Peretz agreeing to serve under Netanyahu; that’s a pitiful prospect to be sure, and I can only see it if the prime minister escapes indictment, which seems highly unlikely (and will take months to work out).

Another reversal scenario would be Likud’s “leadership” overthrowing the suddenly inconvenient Netanyahu, contrary to their recent Soviet pledges of eternal fidelity; that would require a spine, so seems unlikeliest of all.

But hey — how about this: Israel could also bin the vile notion that the Arab parties are haram.

The delegitimizing of the Arab parties carried out in recent years has been classic Netanyahu propaganda. Understanding that the left cannot rule in any likely near-term scenario without Arab party support, and remembering that this is exactly what Yitzhak Rabin actually did, he sought to remove them from the equation. So Israelis were bombarded with the idea that Zionism is the basis of political legitimacy.

Like so many things Netanyahu, it sounds reasonable to many people, even though it’s wrong.

Zionism is the idea that Jews should form a nation-state in the historic Land of Israel. This is an interesting idea, although not all Jews support it. Not all of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners support it either. Adherence to this idea is not the main loyalty test of the State of Israel. Loyalty to the State of Israel is the loyalty test of the State of Israel.

Israel’s 2 million Arab citizens, a fifth of the population, can be asked to be loyal to the country. Mostly they are, perhaps more so than some members of the messianic right, and despite Netanyahu’s incitement against them. But you cannot ask the Arabs to be Zionists. It would be totally absurd.

Yet Netanyahu has so scrambled people’s brains in three decades of jackhammer agitation that even some leftists have passively succumbed. In a sad reflection of weakness and unfocus, they are ready to take the Arabs out of the equation and eliminate their own chances of returning to power.

Yes, some of the 13 incoming Knesset members of the Joint Arab List do not make it easy for Israelis. None of them are blameless, but they are in an awkward situation that deserves some understanding. The main problem involves the three members of Balad (the National Democratic Alliance) who are Palestinian nationalists in a way. Yet even they do not deserve such demonization. They don’t really support terrorism, as Netanyahu would have you believe, and they are no more fascistic than your average nationalist-religious Jew.

There has been a century of terrible conflict. There are few good guys to be found. Many people say stupid things. Get over it and move forward.

Netanyahu would certainly never have dreamed of giving up on the Arabs if the situation were reversed. He has, of course, no shame. Sad as it may seem to say, Gantz should learn a bit from that. Decorum may be very nice, but it will not buy you lunch.

If Netanyahu indeed fails to form a coalition and President Rivlin hands the baton instead to Gantz, he should reach out to the Arabs. He should show some appreciation for the fact that in an unprecedented move they decided to recommend him for prime minister last week.

The blackballing of Israel’s Arabs is something that can only seem normal in an abnormal place. Such things are not sustainable. One day they fall apart. Leadership can hasten the day.

Likudniks will argue that they are not blackballing the community, but rather just its leaders. This is a lie. The goal is to keep the right in power by removing these voters from the equation. The politicians are what they are: not necessarily my cup of tea, and not the devil either.

To Liberman one can say: With the support of the Arabs, your secular agenda can be implemented, much more completely than what you’d get from the Likud. Maybe even a core curriculum for the Haredim and an end of the Orthodox monopoly that so torments your Soviet immigrant base.

I don’t discount the challenges. There will be demonstrations and outcries. Some of the noise will come from racism (Netanyahu’s own ravings are pret-a-porter, by simple copy-paste) and partly because of a more reasonable concern that Israeli Arabs would have trouble backing even a moderate security agenda. But the Arabs (maybe minus Balad) so desperately long for an end to their exclusion that I assess they’ll go far to make it all somehow work out.

What is possible is a minority government backed by the Arabs (and just nine of them will do), which seems to suit them just fine. Blue and White, Liberman and the left would then command 65 seats of the Knesset’s 120, which is solid. It would probably not be long before the government ceases to be dependent on the Arabs as well: Likud with its 32 seats and Shas, the Sephardic-religious party with nine seats, would have an open invitation to join. Shas will probably do so quickly; Likud will come around as well, once Netanyahu is gone.

It will take courage and moral suasion from Gantz, a true leadership test. Pulling this off would be more complicated than convincing leftists to vote for a bunch of back-slapping generals hoping to overthrow Netanyahu. But such may be his destiny. History has a sense of humor.

If such a move is successful it will be spectacular internally, reshuffling the social structure and moving the country many steps toward normalness.

Alongside the secular agenda, which will be wildly popular, Israel will finally bring the Arabs into the fold, even if they do not initially join the coalition as full partners. Decent men like Ahmed Tibi and Ayman Odeh will lead Knesset committees; budgets will be equitable; police will address the crime crisis in the Arab sector; its people will feel they have a voice. The risk of unrest will decrease and Jewish-Arab relations will improve. The Arabs’ participation in the next election will soar.

The stalemate on the Palestinian front will continue, because it will not truly be a peace government quite yet. But perhaps at least the folly of the settlements will be stopped.

Why not try this? What’s the big risk? That it will fail and force a third election? That’s where Israel is headed anyway. Continued right-wing misrule is in any case far worse.

A leader takes a risk. A leader does the right thing.

Liberman has ruled out this scenario, of course. But he also rules out rejoining the right-religious camp. As said, something has to give. Liberman is certainly inscrutable, but also definitely no fool. And while I’m going out on a limb, he might mean well as well.

This may be the test.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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