With talks of a unity government, could the Joint List be the new opposition in Israel’s government?

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The race for Israel’s next prime minister is shaping up to be another marathon, with President Reuven Rivlin delaying his decision on who he will give the mandate to form a government to until perhaps next week.

In the meantime, negotiators from Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) parties will begin talks on a possible unity government — something analysts say could be a likely outcome of the process.

With no clear pathway for either leader and the increasing likelihood of a Likud-Kahol Lavan unity government, one of the biggest upsets of this election cycle for most Israelis is the success of the Arab Joint List, and the possibility that they could lead the opposition in Israel’s government.

A surge in voter turnout, up 11% since April’s elections to 60% last week, propelled the Joint List to winning 13 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making it the third largest party in parliament behind Likud and Kahol Lavan.

If a unity government were formed, the Joint List would become the largest opposition group in the Knesset, the first time an Arab party would hold so much power in the Israeli government.

As the leader of the opposition, Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh would be tasked with holding monthly security briefings and meeting with foreign heads of states, while his fellow Palestinian ministers who have the power to dictate the Knesset’s agenda and voting timetables.

The prospect of Arab leaders holding an unprecedented amount of power in the Knesset has already got Israeli politicians strategizing on how to keep the Joint List at bay, with reports of other Israeli opposition parties planning on using their combined power to block Odeh’s appointment as opposition head.

Mondoweiss spoke to Ramallah-based political analyst Dianna Buttu on her predictions for a unity government and an Ayman Odeh-led opposition, the Joint List’s endorsement of Benny Gantz, and the reception among Palestinians inside Israel.

Mondoweiss: Let’s first talk about the Joint List’s “endorsement” of Gantz. It’s gotten a lot of attention and mixed reactions. What did you think of the move?

Buttu: I’ll start by saying I’m opposed. I really don’t want to beat up on them, because I think there’s been a lot of that, which is unfair.

So, what does what they did actually mean? There wasn’t one party that managed to get 61 seats, so the question was who will be tapped to form coalition. So after every election the president always calls in leaders to ask them, which of the two candidates do you support to be prime minister? Given the numbers and the fact that Lieberman was probably going to abstain, it was becoming increasingly clear that it was going to be Netanyahu to be tapped.

Because Israel is so right wing and he has so many more seats, the question became: what do they [Joint List] do strategically to get Netanyahu out?

Mondoweiss: A lot of Palestinians that have disagreed with the ‘let’s just get Netanyahu out’ mentality, pointing to the fact that Gantz has touted his deadly campaign on Gaza in 2014 as a huge success. 

Why was it so important for the Joint List to get Netanyahu out, if it meant backing, in Palestinians’ eyes, an equally bad candidate?

Buttu: Well, it was so important because Netanyahu is a racist and has done his utmost to support racist policies, including the law that allows for the demolition of nearly 50,000 Palestinian homes in Israel.

This is the man who pushed for and got the passage of the Nation State Law, which codifies the supremacy of Israel’s Jewish citizens. So when faced with this reality of “do we abstain or do we get involved,” the Joint List’s inclination and decision was: to try to do whatever they could to get Netanyahu out.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t an endorsement of Gantz, they just wanted to choose the lesser of two evils, and chose an individual who may be less of a racist than Netanyahu. Could he be more of a racist? Maybe. But we already know what Netanyahu’s policy is, and we haven’t yet seen Gantz’s, in a capacity as Prime Minister.

Would I have done the same if I were an MK? No. First, because this isn’t a normal election. Palestinians voting in Israeli elections is not like Americans voting democrat or republican because you want to see one win. You vote for the Joint List because you want them to be a strong opposition. And that is all they’re going to be. This isn’t a winning game for them.

Why I’m opposed to their “endorsement” of Gantz is because it doesn’t matter which one is going to be Prime Minister anyways — because our role is to act as opposition, not to enter in the politics of who we want to see as prime minister and saying we prefer one guy over the other. This isn’t the case of an anti-racist vs. a racist, it’s the lesser of two evils, but still evil.

So do I think it was wrong? Yes. But do I understand why they did it? Yes.

Mondoweiss: How is the move being received amongst the Palestinian community in Israel, especially after they turned out in such huge numbers to support the Joint List. 

Buttu: It’s split, of course. And in the occupied territories, I think it’s been largely viewed as something negative.

But locally, inside ‘48, most people seem to understand their [the Joint List’s] decision. They understand the circumstances and the special quagmire they are in. At the same time, many people are of the belief that they shouldn’t have endorsed anyone.

I personally think we can’t underestimate voter turnout, and the huge change there was from April to September. This isn’t 4 years, it’s five months of a difference. And of 11%, that’s a lot. The increase in voter turnout was first due in part to the unification of the Joint List, which was huge.

In addition, people were getting a sense that there is a lot that’s at stake — more years of Netanyahu is more of the horror we’ve witnessed over the past decade. Its been a horrible decade for Palestinians. No one can take it lightly. People are seeing this as a chance to bring down Netanyahu. I think there is a sense that the Joint List is finally united and we need to back them as well.

Mondoweiss: There’s a lot of speculation of a Likud-Kahol Lavan unity government, in which case the Joint List would be the official opposition in Israel’s government. What do you think the chances are of that happening?

Buttu: I think there is going to be a unity government, it’s just a question of who’s going to lead, in which case the opposition would be the Joint List.

What’s been fascinating in this entire discussion, the entire Israeli discussion, is that they’re doing everything in their power so that they don’t have to recognize the third largest party in the Knesset.

The other parties in the Knesset are figuring out ways to make the Joint List not the third largest party, they are talking about ways they can unite together and how they can be the opposition, and take that role away from the Arab parties. Palestinians have said very loudly and clearly that “we are here and you have to acknowledge us,” and the Israelis are doing everything in their power to keep the blinders on.

Mondoweiss: So let’s say the Joint List does move forward as the opposition, what would that look like in practice?

Buttu: In terms of policy, what’s also become fascinating is that the Joint List is already the only opposition to Israeli policy. Look at where the Israeli ministers stand on various issues and what the Joint List says. For example, the Joint List is only party that has anti-occupation platform and full equality platform. Even Meretz doesn’t have one (i.e. they don’t support the right of return).

If you go down even further, it’s only the Joint List that has the most progressive mandate. Netanyahu had a minister in his government, the education minister, who talked openly about gay conversion therapy, and you have the opposition in the Joint List attending LGBTQ rallies.

Similarly, there isn’t one Israeli party who has said anything about femicide, but the Joint List has. The Joint List has been talking about crime and violence where other parties have not.

So, the Joint List has come out as the one party in Israel that is a true opposition, and what I mean by that is not just their political platforms. To be a Zionist is to believe in racism and supremacy of one over the other, and it is because they are anti-Zionist that they take the progressive positions they do.

It’s not just because of these issues that we’ve pointed out, they are, at their core, the opposition.

Mondoweiss: Could you share your predictions for how you think the next few weeks are going to play out? And what does it mean for Palestinians?

Buttu: So these are my predictions: We are going have a Gantz and Netanyahu government, a Kahol Lavan and Likud unity government. The big issue is whether it’s going to be Netanyahu leading or Gantz leading. That’s what I see is going to happen.

What does it mean for Palestinians? I think they’re [Israeli parties] going try to maneuver that the Joint List is not the head of the opposition and therefore not able to hold all the power that comes with it. There’s a lot of power there- procedural power, everything from security briefings to being able to control the agenda, to delay or not delay what’s happening in committees, etc.

So far the Joint List have always operated on the committee level, meaning they try to do their best to delay or amend. If you’re opposition you have much more power. I think what the other minority Israeli parties going to do is make sure that the Joint List is not the opposition. The Joint List might be the official opposition, in terms of numbers, but they’ll be hard pressed to translate that into real Knesset power.

If Netanyahu is Prime Minister again, which is increasingly looking the case even if just for a few years, we can expect his wrath. It was Palestinian voters who ousted him in the 90s and Palestinians who almost ousted him in 2019. So we definitely need to brace ourselves for that.

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Looks this (9/25) morning like Netanyahoo isn’t going anywhere.