Israeli politicians no longer have the Palestinians or Arabs to unite voters against and are forced to face battle the country's internal contradictions and deep polarisation.
The day after the second Israeli elections, I spoke to a firm opponent of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s policies, whom he once described as a “weak puppet”. He forcefully stated, “Abbas has defeated Israel!” I quizzically inquired: “How?”
We’ll get to his answer later on, but it sums up the entire crisis Israel facing now.
Nearly eight months have passed since the first Knesset elections this year, leading to roughly $500 million in estimated losses. To grasp how complicated and critical the present situation is for Israel, we need to look to Jared Kushner’s public appeal to Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to form a unity government.
It’s hard to imagine the Trump administration wanting anyone besides Benjamin Netanyahu, who they agree with on almost everything. But if they desired a unity government, why did they go public instead of saying it directly to their trusted ally?
The answer lies in the shadow of uncertainty looming over Israeli politics. Netanyahu failed to form a government—or in the words of Yair Lapid, he did not even try—giving the mandate back to the president, which was then given to Gantz, who finally sat with Netanyahu for negotiations which have yielded nothing.
Can Gantz succeed where Netanyahu failed?
The short answer: quite unlikely, but there is a slight possibility.
The long answer? When Netanyahu had the mandate and offered a unity government, Gantz automatically declined the offer claiming that he would not form a government with someone facing indictment over corruption. But, Gantz is now taking the initiative to invite Netanyahu to talks for a unity government, which Netanyahu immediately accepted. So what’s changed?
Netanyahu’s primary concern is avoiding indictment, which he can manage if he remains the sitting prime minister, while Gantz is concerned about the unity of the Blue and White party; a heterogeneous party brought together by an anti-Netanyahu and anti-ultraorthodox agenda.
Both tried to break the other’s alliance, but both seemed unbreakable. Gantz offered a rotational premiership, with Netanyahu second to him, but Netanyahu refused this during talks that Gantz described as “businesslike”.
On the other hand, kingmaker Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu faces some sort of identity crisis. On the one hand, his championing of secular values makes it clear he would never join hands with Netanyahu so long as he is allied with Orthodox parties (and also in case he is officially indicted).
On the flip-side, his explicit right-wing anti-Arab sentiments ensure he would never enter a coalition with Arabs; specifically, the Arab Joint List who endorsed Gantz to bring down Netanyahu. For Lieberman, the ultra-orthodox are rivals, but the Arabs are the enemy. So does that mean that a third election is inevitable?
My answer: No, but also yes.
Civil-Cold-War: stuck until further notice?
To solve the no-but-yes riddle, we need to examine the root of this whole crisis, which is, the absence of an external enemy to focus on which shifts focus on the inevitable: Israel's deeply divided society.
Israel was made up of Jewish communities migrating from around 45 countries all over the world. They each had their own cultures, values and worldviews. It is, today, highly-polarised and can be argued is an artificially constructed society.
The most influential and decisive of Israel’s founders came from the left, forcing right-wing actors to stomach what they would ordinarily never accept if they had free rein. The left that founded Israel believed Israel should, and has no choice, but to be a part of the West. Accordingly, it should adopt its values of democracy and human rights, or else the West will disown her, leaving her to her own devices.
The existence of an enemy; the Palestinians and Arabs in general, was the glue that kept delaying what Israel has been avoiding for decades - a civil confrontation and, potentially, fragmentation.
If someone from the Israeli-right wishes to question the loyalty of their colleagues or other right-wing allies, they will accuse them of being ‘not far enough on the right’, or worse, ‘being from the left’. Netanyahu himself made it no secret that he despises the left.
Israel now has to face multi-layered societal rifts over religion and identity. It’s not news that Israel has moved irreversibly to the right. Gantz never to tried to claim he represented the left and knows it’s a losing proposition.
However, there is another battle. To many, Israel is still secular and should continue being so. They don’t want a rabbi telling them what to eat, drink or wear. They also want no special treatment for Haredim, who do not serve in the army.
When Israel was founded, Haredim, or Orthodox Jews, were only one percent of the population, but their high-fertility rates made them an unignorable rising power. Demographic trends show that the Orthodox Jews are set to become ‘the elephant in the room’ soon enough.
But what does that mean? It’s back to the yes-no riddle.
It means that even in the unlikely scenarios of Netanyahu giving up, Gantz or Netanyahu managing to break their rival’s deadlock or the miraculous agreement to form a unity government, the new government will be weak and temporary. So yes, there will be a new election soon, even if a government is formed within the month.
Many public calls have been made to reform the fractured political system by reforming the electoral system and making it more similar to the system in the US. Netanyahu himself pledged he would do so. But how can we assume the small, more extremist parties would sign their death warrant and pass such reform? They would simply block any attempts to reduce their influence.
The Israeli ‘Palestinian’ moment?
Not really. Understandably, many are optimistic that the political moment of Israeli Palestinians, or Arab Israelis as some call them, to influence the political system and fight for their rights from within the system has finally come.
As much as I wish for this to be true, I don’t see how it can come to pass. This much needs to be understood clearly: within the Israeli political system, no one wants, or is ready to pay the price of a coalition with Israeli Arabs. Not even Gantz.
If Gantz does, it could deeply divide his party. For now, all Israeli Palestinians can do is create obstacles for the Israeli-right. It would take a much more fractured political scene for Palestinians to have a say. But yes, this could be sooner than anyone expects.
So where is Israel heading?
“He deprived them of what they needed most: an enemy,” said my friend, answering my question on how President Abbas “defeated Israel”.
As simplistic as this may sound, one can hardly deny the absence of any actual pressure on Israel from the Palestinian leadership, which has made Israelis lose the keen ‘threat perception’ that shaped their previous joint stands and unity. Israel now has to contend with itself.
Regardless of whether a unity government or third elections take place, Israel is past the point of no return, forced to face its myriad contradictions, secular or religious, right or left. This will cost it many early elections, not just this one.
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