The Jewish Chronicle
With Arab parties welcome, Israeli politics can change
BARELY A week ago, few Israelis would have recognised Mansour Abbas walking down the street. Even some seasoned political reporters were still getting his name the wrong way round. Now all of a sudden, with the final results of the election in, the 46 year-old dentist and lay preacher who first entered the Knesset two years ago is the kingmaker and the most unlikely candidate to change Israel’s political landscape.
The Ra’am party and its members had always been the least prominent component of the Joint List, until it broke away in this election and ran independently. Abbas has none of the charisma of Ayman Odeh or the eloquence and biting wit (as well as the most beautiful Hebrew) of Ahmed Tibi, who were previously seen as the ground breaking Arab-Israeli MKs, with a talent for bridging the divide to the Jewish majority.
But it’s Abbas, with his plainspoken, brass tacks approach, putting issues of Palestinian identity and nationalism firmly aside and focusing on concrete ways of improving life for his community, who has come closest to being considered a bona fide member of government, perhaps even in a ruling right-wing one.
Of course, it’s not just Abbas. His new position as kingmaker would not be possible if Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t on the brink of defeat. This is the same Mr Netanyahu who exactly a year ago, after the previous election left him in a similar position, held a press conference in which he totted up the numbers on a whiteboard, claiming that he had actually won the election, since the members of Joint List, including Mr Abbas and his Ra’am colleagues were “terrorsupporters” and therefore not legitimate members of any coalition.
Mr Netanyahu has yet to announce, in his own voice, a sudden change in attitude to those terror supporters. But his media mouthpieces are busy at work explaining how Mr Abbas is now not only a legitimate politician, but his inclusion in a right-wing government would actually be a triumph for a new vision of Israeli inclusion.
It’s easy, and of course justified, to recall all the times Mr Netanyahu used anti-Arab dog-whistle tactics to fire up his base, especially his Election Day video in 2015 with its “the Arab voters are moving in droves to the polling stations” message.
But it’s equally relevant to remember that he didn’t invent the veto on Arab parties. It has been there in one form or another since 1949, when David Ben Gurion said that his government could include any party “with the exception of Herut [Likud’s forerunner] and Maki [the Israeli communist party].” And of course, over the years, all governments — right, left and centre — maintained that veto.
Mr Netanyahu is not the only recent convert to inclusion. His main challenger, Yair Lapid, is one as well. Back in 2013, when Mr Lapid’s Yesh Atid arrived on the scene, winning 19 seats and becoming the second-largest party, one of his first reactions was to airily dismiss any notion of cooperating with the Arab parties in blocking Mr Netanyahu, saying, “I won’t join a bloc with Zoabis”. He was referring to firebrand former Arab MK Haneen Zoabi, one of the most controversial women ever to serve in the Knesset. But it was the sneering way in which he used her name to refer to all Arab MKs that remained burned for years in the public consciousness.
Last year, Mr Lapid finally apologised for the “Zoabis” remark and he is now open as well to including Arab MKs in his party, though just a year ago the most he was prepared to accept was the Joint List supporting a coalition from the outside, in a confidence-and-supply agreement.
Whatever the final outcome of this election’s coalition horse-trading, a precedent has now been set for Arab parties being legitimate potential partners. If the taboo had been broken earlier, Israel could have been spared at least two of the last four consecutive elections.
In fact, Israeli political history could have been very different if it had been broken earlier.
● Meanwhile, the election clock is ticking. Again. Official election results were presented to President Rivlin and the routine of party leaders’ consultations, followed by mandates to possible candidates, once again kicked off. Theoretically, it could take as long as four months before all options are exhausted and another election is called, but Mr Rivlin hasn’t got enough time. He is set to end his seven-year term in July and wants the coalition business sorted by the end of May, at the latest, so he gets enough time for some legacy-setting.
Strangely, however, he doesn’t seem to be in a rush to start the actual consultations. Instead of meeting party leaders immediately after receiving the results, his office has scheduled them to begin on Monday. Is it simply a coincidence that is also the day that the first prosecution witness will take the stand in Jerusalem’s District Court, when the corruption trial against Mr Netanyahu finally resumes?
There is no love lost between the two veteran Likudniks. Mr Netanya
Rivlin doesn’t seem to be in a rush to start the consultations’
hu is convinced that the president is in cahoots with his rival Gideon Sa’ar and wants to drive him from office. Could his paranoia be well-founded this time?
The law gives the president broad discretion in his choice of upon whom to bestow the mandate. Assuming no candidate receives 61 endorsements in the consultations, as seems very likely, could President Rivlin be preparing to deny Mr Netanyahu? Fresh damning testimony against him in court would certainly help, if that is the case.
● Either way, the president should get a move on. For the past four months, the government has been paralysed as Mr Netanyahu is no longer on speaking terms with his defence minister Benny Gantz, another of the party leaders vying to replace him. There is a double-lock on government business, since as an interim government, it doesn’t have full powers and under the terms of the coalition agreement between Likud and Blue and White, which is still legally binding, Mr Gantz has the right to veto any item on the cabinet’s agenda. And it’s a bulging one.
A decision has to be made soon on purchasing millions more vaccines, in case the ones already injected into the arms of Israelis turn out to be effective only for a relatively short period. There is a huge row between the health ministry, backed by Mr Netanyahu, which is insisting massive orders be placed immediately, and the Treasury officials who argue that billions are being wasted without proper planning. Then there are billions more that Mr Netanyahu wants to spend on a stimulus plan for the economy.
There are security issues as well that need to be properly discussed, one of the most pressing of which is how to respond to two Iranian attacks on Israeli cargo ships, a retaliation for a sabotage operation against Iranian tankers evading the embargo. The Iranian issue, once Mr Netanyahu’s pride and glory, seems to be slipping away from him as the Biden administration continues to seek ways to re-engage with Tehran and a major economic cooperation deal has just been signed between Iran and China.
In a week in which the waterways in the Middle East have dominated global headlines, a little-noticed but crucial water supply agreement between Israel and Jordan has not yet been authorised by Israel for the coming summer. Mr Netanyahu is still smarting that the Jordanians prevented him from flying through their airspace on the way to a brief photo opportunity that he hoped to stage before the election with the Crown Prince of Dubai. Israeli-Jordanian relations are at a nadir and though Mr Netanyahu is expected to give the green light, the thought of Jordanian cities going dry in the hot months ahead will not help matters. Israel can ill afford the current deadlock continuing. And next week, the prime minster will have even less time to deal with matters of state.
Israel can ill afford the current deadlock continuing’