Israeli ex-General and leader of the Blue and White Coalition, Benny Gantz, has performed something of a Lazarus-act. On election night a few weeks ago, he was all but declared dead. The Likud, celebrating its 36-seat result, exulted at the prospect of forming the next government and retaining Bibi Netanyahu as its leader.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the President’s House: as the vote continued to be counted, analysts realized that the seats Likud had gained were not from the Opposition, but from its own coalition partners. In other words, the right-wing bloc ruling Israel for the past decades hadn’t gained strength. It had merely rearranged the deck chairs.
It took a day or two even for the media to digest this, during which triumphant headlines about a Likud victory graced media websites around the world. But eventually, observers realized that in fact, the bellicosity of attacks by the far-right on the Israeli Palestinian minority during the election had, in fact, boosted voter turnout in this community. All of a sudden, the Joint List added two seats and became a de facto kingmaker.
This was the shock of a lifetime for many in the Likud, and they began shouting that no legitimate Israeli (Jewish) Party could join with “Arabs” in a governing coalition. The Palestinians of the Joint List were, according to Likud, “terrorists” and “traitors to the State” of which they just happened to be citizens.
At this point, Blue and White and its leadership had an important decision to make: would they refuse to include the Joint List in their considerations as the far-right demanded; or would they break consensus and tradition by exploring a political agreement.
To their credit, both the Joint List and Blue and White became somewhat unlikely and slightly uncomfortable bedfellows. Even the more left-wing partner in Joint List, Balad, eventually agreed to participate in this co-habitation.
It was at this point that the right flank of Blue and White became balky at the prospect of sitting with the Joint List. Two of its newly elected MKs who had switched allegiance from the Likud, threatened not to support the inclusion of the Palestinians in coalition deliberations. Then an MK from the Labor-Meretz coalition, who had abandoned Lieberman’s Party, actually announced her betrayal of her new partner. She, Orly Levy-Abekasis, was the only MK in the new coalition which voted against Gantz.
This gave him 61 votes, meaning the President would offer him the opportunity to become the next prime minister and form a new government. As you can tell, 61 votes (or a one-seat majority) is an exceedingly shaky coalition. In addition, 15 of those 61 votes derive from the Joint List, which is not a formal member of the coalition. Rather, it will support the government from the outside.
But the main achievement of this new government is that it will topple Bibi Netanyahu from almost two decades of unrivaled power. Given that he faces three corruption counts and a criminal trial as soon as the Coronavirus abates, this could be his last hurrah as Israeli leader. The transition from a rabidly extremist premier to a slightly less rabid center-right premier will bring some welcome change. Though no one should forget that Gantz is no saint and presides over Operation Protective Edge, which killed 2,300 Palestinians in 2014.
This political co-habitation arrangement does not bode well in terms of stability or longevity. In addition, a key element in this coalition is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu. He has been known throughout his career for his obstreperous racist provocations against the Palestinian population. Though he has explicitly expressed his willingness to join this government given the support of the Joint List, it remains to be seen how long and strong that support may be.
Nevertheless, no Israeli ruling coalition has included a Palestinian Party in decades. In fact, one of my long-time criticisms of Israeli politics is precisely this ostracism and exclusion of Palestinians from the halls of political power. Now, instead of the police routinely arresting, imprisoning and even exiling Palestinian MKs, the latter will form a crucial component of government.
Gantz has not discussed his cabinet choices, though certainly his three partners, Yair Lapid, Gaby Ashkenazi, and Bogie Yaalon, will share senior posts. It seems quite possible that a Joint List MK (likely its leader, Aymen Odeh) could score a cabinet portfolio.
To be clear, none of this means a revolution in Israeli politics. The sun hasn’t all of sudden broken through a dark miasma to illuminate a nation free of all its former faults. Not to mention that this delicate coalition could collapse at the least breath of dissent or dissatisfaction. If it did, all the positive change could be lost in an instant.
Nevertheless, the power and stature this new government offers to the Palestinian minority is a major change for the good. They will be, in their own fashion, power brokers rather than victims.