Israel finds itself at one of those junctures where what is needed is a clear understanding of which way lies the least bad option. Many people are not built for this situation: they complain that the option is bad. And so indeed it is – but it is the least bad. Leaders need to see what is the essence at such unfortunate times – and it looks like Benny Gantz finally does.
My choice for the least bad option is a Blue and White government backed by Avigdor Liberman and the Joint Arab List, with the 62-seat majority it would “enjoy.” If both of these players showed maturity, and there are cautious signals this actually might occur, then this scenario will arise.
Sadly, such a government will not be able to genuinely resume the peace process with the Palestinians. Liberman will not allow it, so this will have to wait. But it can make tremendous leaps forward nonetheless:
- Desperately needed reforms on religion and state. This means allowing commerce and public transportation on weekends in areas where a majority wants it. It means civil marriage. It means easier conversions for the hundreds of thousands who need them. Hopefully it will also mean reduced funding to the religious ecosystem that has gone wild (the legions of “kashrut supervisors”), reduced access to secular schools by religious proselytizers, and (critically) encouraging a core curriculum in haredi schools.
- Improvements to the electoral system. This means first and foremost the proposed law banning a criminal defendant from being appointed prime minister, which is one of the most absurd notions even to be seriously contemplated in the history of Israel. But wider changes are needed to prevent the kind of political confusion we have seen; for example, assigning victory to the largest single party, which will quickly yield a two-party system with smaller religious and Arab wings. Elections need a winner, not just a loser who gives a victory speech.
- Properly funded educational and health systems. I have no illusions that the settlement movement and the excessive funding to the yeshivas can end, but the funding to both can be reduced and budgets redirected to where they are badly needed.
- Healing the Jewish-Arab rift. This won’t be easy, after Netanyahu’s poisonous incitement, and it does involve risks, but it would be spectacular. It means funding, it means more attacking the scourge of crime in the sector, and it means a total change of music. The hope is that the Arabs will appreciate the risks Gantz is taking, and change their own music as well. Perhaps, down the road, the Joint List can part ways with its nationalistic component, Balad.
- Perhaps most importantly, it will remove Benjamin Netanyahu from office. It is strange that this might be the most important thing – but it probably is. This would end a desperate situation in which the leader of the country is the main agitator against the rule of law, the main voice poisoning the public discourse, and the main force nudging the country toward civil war. Add to that the egomania, the behavior of his family, the constant funding and other scandals, and the actual indictments, and you can safely and fairly conclude the current situation is completely and totally insane.
Obviously, all this would be dangerous. The current right wing, all over the world, is simply not willing to lose with good grace, or even a modicum of sporting. In the particular and sad case of Israel, Netanyahu has led many of his fans to believe, with incredible infantility, that he is responsible for all that is good in the country, and that his downfall will be a disaster. Furthermore, he is currently engaged in delegitimizing the votes of the Arabs – and the government that may be formed with their assistance. If his Likud cronies do not show him the door (and in their spineless condition there is a good chance they won’t) he will raise hell from the opposition and be more than willing to burn down the house.
Expect much discussion of how the Joint List is full of “terrorism supporters,” which is what Likud will claim. Understand that the century-old Jewish-Arab conflict over the Holy Land makes this issue complicated and nuanced. There are some people there who indeed are too forgiving for comfort of violence, but the mainstream of the Joint List is comprised of people who want to get past the past. There is tremendous value to grasping their outstretched hand.
A fourth election (which will change nothing), a unity government with Netanyahu (which will destroy hope and spread cynicism), or a right-wing government based on deserters from the center-left (which will devastate Israeli democracy) are all worse options.
Obviously, it would be better if Blue and White together with Labour had won 61 seats. Such a government would have seriously renewed the peace process and endeavored to separate from the Palestinians. Perhaps, if the “minority government” did all of the above, then one day such an outcome might arrive.
It’s not inconceivable, because there will be ancillary political effects.
Implementation of the above agenda will highlight and harden the break between the secular right and the ultra-Orthodox. This rift explains Lieberman’s abandonment of Netanyahu (his Russian base could no longer bear the situation) and that is ultimately the development that (perhaps) enables Netanyahu’s overdue retirement.
It will ensure the Arab citizens vote in even greater numbers next time. Their full potential is well over 20 seats.
And it will give the center-left invaluable achievements that will give people a reason to vote in the next election.
Which, of course, could come soon.