Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, abandoned the central plank of his platform at the weekend – that he would never sit in a coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led Israel continuously for the past 11 years.
A former military general, Gantz justified his dramatic change of course under cover of claims that Israel needed an “emergency” unity government to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.
Israel’s government has been paralysed by three elections in which neither Netanyahu’s bloc of ultra-nationalist and religious parties, nor Gantz’s anti-Netanyahu bloc of secular, largely right-wing parties, could muster a parliamentary majority.
Gantz argued it was time to set aside differences, ignore Netanyahu’s impending criminal trial for corruption and rally against the virus. The about-face means that Netanyahu will remain prime minister for at least the next 18 months – and possibly longer if he makes good on his well-earned reputation for subterfuge and double-dealing.
Gantz has said he is “at peace” with his decision. “There was no other alternative route, and had there been, we would have taken it,” he told supporters stunned by his decision.
The reality is rather different.
Gantz actually enjoyed a narrow majority of legislators in parliament after the 2 March election. As a result, President Reuven Rivlin had tasked him last week with forming a government. His majority bloc was resolutely opposed to Netanyahu as prime minister, accusing him of increasingly authoritarian rule and pointing to his indictment for corruption.
The bloc also opposed Netanyahu’s cultivation of a new, more religious kind of politics, in which extremist rabbis and settler leaders have moved ever closer to centre-stage.
So why is Gantz now sitting in a government with a man he supposedly despises – one that Haaretz this week called “the king of corruption” – rather than leading a majority government of his own?
There is only one honest answer: racism. Gantz and his bloc may passionately hate Netanyahu and his megalomaniacal style of politics, but they detest with even greater intensity, it seems, one faction of their majority bloc: the Joint List.
The Joint List, which currently has a record 15 seats in parliament, is an alliance of four parties that represent the fifth of the country’s population who are Palestinian by heritage.
They are the remnants inside Israel of the Palestinian people, most of whom were driven from their lands in 1948 to create a “Jewish state” on the ruins of their homeland, an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Today, some 1.8 million Palestinians have Israeli citizenship and are entitled to vote in Israeli elections. Nonetheless, theirs is a very degraded form of citizenship. They enjoy far fewer rights than Jewish citizens, especially in language, land and housing rights.
After many months of Gantz and his allies denouncing Netanyahu as corrupt, what lesson is the Palestinian minority supposed to draw from his decision now to abandon his own bloc in favour of Netanyahu?
Gantz and his supporters have demonstrated through their actions who they really abhor. They have chosen the criminal suspect, Netanyahu, over the Palestinian minority.
Gantz and the so-called Jewish “centre-left” may claim to be guardians of Israel’s democracy, but it is clearly a version of democracy that does not include a fifth of the population – because they are of the wrong ethnicity.
Annihilation and fraud
The discourse of Gantz’s bloc throughout the three election campaigns focused on maintaining a “Jewish majority” government – the only one they considered “legitimate”.
Gantz’s secular Jewish right, masquerading as “centre-left”, has ended up spurning representatives of the Palestinian minority on exactly the same grounds as Netanyahu.
“For each of these supposed ‘two sides’ of the political debate, the ‘Arabs’ are not seen as included in Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state,” Asad Ghanem, a politics professor at the University of Haifa, observed to Middle East Eye.
Netanyahu has been intensifying his incitement against the Palestinian minority since 2015, when he presented their very act of voting – or their coming out in “droves” to vote, as he phrased it – as a threat to Israeli democracy. More recently, he warned that Jewish opposition parties must not ally with the Joint List because “Arabs want to annihilate us all – women, children and men”.
In recent months, he has repeatedly called Palestinian parties “terror supporters”, thereby not only discrediting those parties in the eyes of the Jewish public, but also discrediting the Palestinian citizens who sent them to parliament.
Gantz, supposedly running a campaign against Netanyahu to uphold democratic values and institutions, has not rejected this anti-democratic incitement. He has accepted and complied with it, treating Palestinian parties like some kind of contagious coronavirus patient, to be kept at a safe distance.
Treated ‘like a mistress’
From the outset of every election campaign, Gantz made it starkly clear that he had no intention of including the Joint List in any future government. As he said in the run-up to the 2 March election: “I’m not afraid of talking to any legitimate political party, but the Joint Arab List won’t be a part of my government.”
With no credible path to power without the Joint List, however, Gantz was reluctantly forced to engage in pro forma talks with its leaders.
Those discussions were never about more than whether the Joint List might be allowed to support a minority Gantz government – comprising only Jewish parties – from the outside. A similar situation unfolded in the early 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin needed Palestinian parties to pass legislation supporting the Oslo peace process through the parliament’s hostile majority of Jewish members.
As with Rabin, the goal of Gantz and his bloc was never to let the Joint List anywhere near government, Ghanem noted. The negotiations were intended as leverage over a power-hungry Likud party, pressuring it to ditch Netanyahu as leader.
That was why Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, argued that Gantz was using his party “like a mistress”.
Made to look foolish
When Gantz unexpectedly called last month for a unity government that would include “representation of all parts of the house” – a reference to sections of the Joint List – he was again not playing straight. As his latest actions reveal, he was using the Joint List as a sword over Netanyahu’s head, “hoping to secure better terms for his own entry into the government”, Ghanem pointed out.
The Joint List suspected all this. But even so, in the September election and then again after the March vote, Odeh broke with the prior, natural caution of Palestinian parties in dealing with right-wing Zionist politicians and backed Gantz to head the government, rather than abstaining.
All of this was done in the desperate hope that Gantz and the Jewish “centre-left” really were concerned about the state of Israeli democracy and getting rid of Netanyahu. In recent weeks even Balad, the most hardline and recalcitrant faction in the Joint List, agreed to support Gantz.
They will pay a price with their own public for that mistake, according to Wadea Awawdy, a senior Israeli-Palestinian journalist from the Galilee.
“This has not just embarrassed the Palestinian parties; it has demoralised the wider Palestinian community,” he told MEE. “On social media, the Joint List members are being called foolish and naive for ever believing Gantz. The List made big claims that they would use their 15 seats to stop the Trump plan, that they would help send Netanyahu to jail. Now they have been left entirely empty-handed.”
It will be hard to persuade Palestinian citizens to turn out again in the large numbers that were seen in September and March – which is exactly what Netanyahu hoped to achieve when he began the incitement campaign against Palestinian voting back in 2015.
Avoiding the ‘Zoabis’
Those sections of the Blue and White alliance that have refused to follow Gantz into Netanyahu’s government are no less racist, Nabila Espanioly, an education expert from Nazareth who has run as a candidate for the Israeli parliament, observed to MEE.
“They may present themselves as an alternative to Netanyahu, but it is all baloney,” she said.
Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid faction will now head the opposition to Netanyahu. But back in 2013, he rejected an earlier chance to oust Netanyahu if it meant sitting in a government supported by Palestinian parties. In ugly fashion, Lapid dismissed Palestinian politicians as “Zoabis” – a reference to Haneen Zoabi, a prominent and much-reviled female Palestinian politician of the time.
Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu, a former defence minister, is an even worse inciter than Netanyahu against Palestinian parties – as well as Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
He has called the Palestinian leadership in Israel “terrorists” and called for them to be beheaded. He has threatened to strip the Palestinian public of citizenship if they fail his “loyalty” test, and called for an area where many Palestinian citizens live to be transferred to the occupied West Bank.
None of these “opposition” politicians are really guardians of democracy, except in the sense of a democracy for Jews only. All have sat in previous Netanyahu governments that incited against and legislated against Palestinians.
Rather, noted Espanioly, their current opposition to Netanyahu is chiefly an angry backlash by right-wing secular politicians – on behalf of right-wing secular parts of Jewish society – to the increasing power Netanyahu has handed over to the Jewish religious leadership, including the more extreme, messianic sections of the settler community.
Lapid, Lieberman and Moshe Yaalon of Telem also share a deep personal antipathy to Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stabbed them in the back. Their supposed concern for democracy emerged only when Netanyahu was at his weakest, as the noose of an impending corruption trial tightened around his neck.
And the vitriol they have now directed at Gantz, the novice politician, is recognition that he is treading the same credulous path they previously followed.
But even these phoney “centrists” have been outdone by the so-called “left” part of their bloc. The Labor party, which founded Israel more than 70 years ago, has gradually become a pale shadow of its former self as the Israeli Jewish public has lurched ever further rightwards. In March, the party won a mere three seats, passing the electoral threshold only by allying with another tiny leftist party, Meretz.
Its current leader, Amir Peretz, and another Labor legislator intend to head into the Netanyahu government too, keen to get their hands on a small slice of the corrupt power they have been excoriating Netanyahu for wielding.
The negligible differences between Gantz and Netanyahu should become starkly clear in the coming months.
Ghanem observed that Netanyahu would be “freed to pursue the same policies he has been implementing for the past 11 years. Apart from the Joint List, there is a consensus across Israeli politics on how to treat the occupied territories and on the importance of Jewish supremacy.”
Like Netanyahu, Gantz has backed US President Donald Trump’s so-called “peace” plan, which includes provisions to annex swaths of the occupied West Bank that have been illegally colonised by Jewish settlers, stripping Palestinians of any hope of a state.
Now that Netanyahu has a majority government, there is nothing standing in the way of this plan. This week, Peace Now and other Israeli groups that back a two-state solution sent an urgent letter to Gantz, pleading with him to block the drive towards annexation.
Gantz, the former head of the army who oversaw the widespread destruction of Gaza in 2014, is also unlikely to oppose future attacks on Palestinians under occupation, or the worsening of their conditions. In fact, his party will be in charge of the defence ministry, organising any such attacks.
And Gantz will undoubtedly abandon his main promise relevant to the Palestinian minority – “fixing” the 2018 nation-state law. The law confers constitution-like status on Israel’s Jewishness, revokes Arabic as an official language, and puts as a top priority Judaisation – a policy of settling Jews into Palestinian areas inside Israel and the occupied territories.
According to Espanioly, Gantz’s actions have brutally exposed the sham of an Israeli “opposition” to Netanyahu.
“The reality is that Israel’s political scene is in a deep crisis about values,” she said. “Opposition politicians talk about the importance of democratic values, but no one actually wants to do the hard work of embodying those values – or of protecting them.”
• First published in Middle East Eye