The Future of Israeli Democracy May Hinge on the Arab Vote
To speculate about the outcome of this newest Israeli election is all but pointless. Nobody, from President Rivlin to Prime Minister Netanyahu all the way down to the lowliest pundit, has the slightest clue how things will shake out. Israeli politics, turbulent at the best of times, has become downright chaotic.
The trouble started in April. A routine election expected to return Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party to power for the fifth time went awry when Avigdor Lieberman, a key coalition partner, suddenly defected from Netanyahu’s faction. Normally this would have given the opposition Blue and White party a chance to form their own government, but Netanyahu, ever the slippery fish, instead used his prerogative as sitting Prime Minister to call another election.
Every Israeli government since the nation’s founding has relied upon the support of fringe parties; no party in history has ever amassed the 61 seats required for a parliamentary majority. The Likud party has maintained its hold on power by carefully balancing the demands of the religious right and the secular, nationalistic right, who are often at odds with each other. In April this tentative alliance collapsed.
The promised second election came and went this past month. Likud underperformed expectations, dropping to second place behind Blue and White; but the mathematics of Israeli democracy has it such that Mr Netanyahu has once again been given the first chance to form a coalition. The Prime Minister himself has been openly pessimistic about his ability to do so and has mused publicly about a third election.
Much attention has been paid to the slow-moving downfall of Mr Netanyahu, whose political end is, according to many, in the offing. But another momentous sea change may have come out of this electoral vortex: for the first time in decades, the Arab parties are getting involved. These parties -- representing a wide variety of political ideologies -- have grouped together into a single political faction called the Joint List. Owing to larger-than-average Israeli-Arab participation in the September election, the Joint List is now the third-largest party in the Israeli parliament.
Traditionally, the Joint List has abstained from participation in Israeli governments. (The last time Arab parties supported a candidate for Prime Minister was 1992.) Their reason for doing so is twofold. First, Mr Netanyahu has increased his hateful rhetoric and actions towards the Arab and Palestinian communities significantly in recent years. The passage of the Nation-State Law, which officially designated Israel as a Jewish state has been criticised by figures on the left and right, who have argued that parts of the law will be used to hurt ethnic minority citizens. When the bill was passed, lawmakers from the government coalition applauded; those of the Joint List shouted ‘apartheid’. Later, Mr Netanyahu wrote on Instagram, praising the passage of the Nation-State Law and stating in bold terms that ‘Israel is not a state of all its citizens’. During the campaign, he promised to annex parts of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank if elected.
To be sure (and prominent members of Joint List have said this publicly), the policies of Blue and White are not much different from Likud -- in Israel, there is no viable left-wing. But the motivation to remove such a hated individual from office is clear.
Secondly, with the sudden popularity of the Blue and White Party and Mr Netanyahu suffering personally from several criminal indictments over alleged corrupt practices, the possibility of removing the man from power has been stronger now than in years.
It probably won’t work. Even though they are the third-largest party, Joint List, Blue and White, and the smattering of leftist parties which managed to squeak past the minimal entry barrier to the Israeli parliament will not be enough to propel someone other than Netanyahu to office. Any of the most likely outcomes will come as a shock. Either Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will agree to a national unity government led by Netanyahu -- a possibility he repeatedly rejected whilst on the campaign trail -- or Mr Lieberman will put aside his newfound hatred for the Prime Minister and restore the old ruling coalition. Alternatively, and against everyone’s wishes, the beleaguered little nation may yet again head to the polls, likely to return a similar if not identical result.
It is yet to be seen, too, whether the Joint List’s intervention will be a one-off attempt at removing a singularly-despised figure from power, or whether Israel’s traditionally marginalised Arab minority will continue to exercise their newfound influence. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, wrote in the New York Times last month: ‘We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored. Our decision to recommend Mr. Gantz as the next prime minister without joining his expected national unity coalition government is a clear message that the only future for this country is a shared future, and there is no shared future without the full and equal participation of Arab Palestinian citizens’. Netanyahu may yet cling to power, but the currents are moving against him. The Arabs, perhaps pushed too far, are realising their own strength.