Sheldon Kirshner
Sheldon Kirshner

Israel turns a new page

Israel turned a new page on June 13 as Naftali Bennett supplanted Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. This will be the first government in 12 years not led by Netanyahu, who was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

The Knesset approved the new government by a margin of 60 to 59, with one abstention, thereby ending the rancorous Netanyahu era in Israeli politics and two years of acrimonious political deadlock.

Netanyahu, who has been indicted on three criminal charges of corruption and faces a lengthy trial that began last year, did not go out quietly. He delivered a combative, even defiant, speech, lambasting Bennett’s “bad and dangerous left-wing government” and promising to bring it down “faster than you think.”

Until almost the last moment, Netanyahu — a deeply divisive and polarizing figure who believes he is indispensable — tried to scuttle this disparate and unlikely “change” coalition, which is composed of eight parties spanning the spectrum from the far right to the left.

Bennett, the leader of the hard-right Yamina Party, and his partner, Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, are due to share power over a four-year period. Whether this expedient alliance endures is debatable.

In the meantime, Bennett — the first religiously observant prime minister and the leader of the nationalist religious camp — will fill that office for the first two years. Lapid, a secular liberal, will serve as foreign minister and alternate prime minister until 2023 and is then scheduled to replace Bennett.

Significantly enough, the Bennett government is propped up by  Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am Party, a conservative, Islamist Arab party. Without Ra’am’s endorsement, Bennett could not have formed a government, and a fifth election would have been imminent.

Bennett and his patchwork of allies won 57 seats in the last election, four shy of a majority in the Knesset. With Ra’am’s four seats in hand, they succeeded in deposing Netanyahu, establishing a government, and breaking a two-year political crisis.

Israel has gone through four inconclusive elections since the spring of 2019. Having failed to form a government after the first two elections, Netanyahu — the head of the right-wing Likud Party — called yet another election.

He and Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, cobbled together a coalition, but it collapsed after a little more than six months without bringing down a budget. A fourth election in March produced still more paralysis and frustration.

With the Likud having won 30 seats, more than any other party, Netanyahu was given the first crack at forming a government. He fell short because one of his allies, Bazalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party, adamantly refused to work with Abbas, whose backing Netanyahu desperately needed.

Lapid managed to form a coalition comprising Bennett’s Yamina Party, Gantz’s Blue and White Party, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope Party, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, Merav Michaeli’s Labor Party, Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz Party, and Abbas’ Ra’am Party.

Bennett had previously denounced Abbas as a “supporter of terrorism.” But last week, he described Abbas as a “brave leader” and a “decent man,” saying his inclusion in the government would “turn over a new leaf in the relationship between the state and Arab Israelis.”

This may be true.

Until now, Israeli Arab parties have played no role in the formation of governments and have not been directly included in any of them. As Abbas said after formally joining the coalition on June 3, “This is the first time that an Arab party is part of the process of forming a government.”

During his second term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin relied on the outside support of Arab parties. And in the past, Arabs in Zionist parties have been appointed to the cabinet. But never before has an anti-Zionist politician, like Abbas, been so closely associated with an Israeli government.

Abbas, who until last winter was a member of the Joint List, an amalgamation of four Arab anti-Zionist parties with six seats in the Knesset, joined the coalition to advance legislative priorities for his constituents in particular and the Arab community in general.

“We can work with anyone,” said Abbas, a pragmatist, last February. “Arab politicians have been onlookers in the political process in Israel. Arabs are looking for a real role in Israeli politics.”

Politicians like Abbas believe they can only improve the lot of the Arab minority, representing 20 percent of the population, if they work within the system rather than against it. And keeping four inconclusive elections in mind, most mainstream Zionist parties are now of the view that Arab politicians can make all the difference in a tightly contested election.

Netanyahu, who compiled a record of demonizing Israeli Arabs, began courting Abbas after realizing he might hold the balance of power after the next election.

Pledging greater financial resources for the Arab sector and promising to fight the high crime rate in Arab towns, he announced that a “new era” had dawned in Israel’s sometimes fraught relationship with Israeli Arabs of Palestinian descent. Netanyahu’s decision to court Abbas emboldened Lapid to reach out to the Ra’am Party as well.

Inspired by and modeled after the Muslim Brotherhood, the Ra’am Party represents the political wing of the Southern Islamic Movement in Israel. Ra’am’s charter dismisses Zionism as a “racist, occupying project,” calls for the return of Palestinian refugees who left or were expelled in 1948, and compares Israel to the short-lived Crusader states of the Middle Ages.

Despite his ideological aversion to Israel, Abbas was prepared to cooperate with the government of the day “in return for improving conditions of Arab citizens and ending injustice, marginalization and exclusion against them.”

Abbas’ pragmatic approach to politics jeopardized his standing in the Joint List, which has been in existence since 2015. Consisting of the Balad, Ra’am, Ta’al and Hadash factions, it held 15 seats in the Knesset at the height of its influence.

Having clashed with its leaders over his controversial decision to work collaboratively with Zionist parties, Abbas bolted the Joint List in February to run independently in the March 23 election. Having won the support of 167,000 Bedouin Arab voters in southern Israel, he assured his supporters he would stick to his principles. “We may not be able to achieve them all, but we will not abandon them,” he said.

Under the agreement Abbas reached with Lapid and Bennett, the government will spend billions of dollars to “reduce gaps in Arab, Druze, Circassian and Bedouin society.”

It will improve transportation and infrastructure in Arab communities and combat crime in these places. It will formally recognize the three Bedouin villages of Khashm al-Zena, Rakhma and Abda. And it will freeze the 2017 Kaminitz law, which targets illegal construction and is widely regarded by Arabs as discriminatory.

The Ra’am Party will additionally receive a deputy ministerial post in the Prime Minister’s Office, the chairmanship of the Knesset Interior Committee, the job of deputy Knesset speaker, and the chairmanship of the Arab Affairs Committee.

Abbas himself will not be a member of the cabinet, but he will pull all the strings.

In his first address to the Knesset after Bennett was sworn in as prime minister, Abbas vowed to reclaim land that was “expropriated” from Israeli Arabs. “We will reclaim the lands that were expropriated from our people, this is a national cause of the first degree,” he said in Arabic.

Switching to Hebrew toward the close of his speech, he sounded a conciliatory theme. “We come from different nations, different religions, and different sectors,” he said. “There is one thing that connects all citizens of Israel and that is citizenship.”

It is on this basis that Ra’am will support Israel’s newest government.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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