Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reign as the country’s longest-serving premier may come to an end in the next few weeks. News outlets in Israel were abuzz over the weekend when sources in his Likud party said he is on the brink of telling the president he cannot form a coalition, which would give challenger Benny Gantz an opportunity to oust Netanyahu.
What’s not to be lost regardless of the outcome is the historic role Palestinian citizens of Israel played in shaping the election and weakening Netanyahu.
The Joint List, a coalition of four Arab factions, impacted the course of the election when party head Ayman Odeh of the Hadash faction (the largest single Palestinian party in Israel), said he would recommend Gantz as Israel’s next Prime Minister. This marked the first time for such an endorsement since the late Yizhak Rabin narrowly became prime minister in 1992 thanks to the backing of Arab parties.
Faction leaders within the Joint List made clear they would not ask to join the government and would remain in the opposition. In the Israeli electoral system, parties that support a candidate to become prime minister traditionally join the governing coalition, but it’s not required. However, it is important to note that Odeh did propose that the Joint List would join a center-left governing coalition provided certain demands were met, including the repeal of both the Jewish Nation-State Law and the Kaminitz Law, which limits construction in Palestinian communities, and steps toward the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and the creation of a Palestinian state. Still, Gantz continued to give the Joint List the cold shoulder and vehemently refuses to even sit down with the leadership of the Joint List.
Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, who leads the Ta’al faction in the Joint List, told President Rivlin that Gantz is “not our cup of tea,” adding that “our voters wanted this historic moment after a leader systematically incited against us as if we are an enemy.” Tibi also indicated that the Joint List may cooperate with a center-left government formed with Haredis (ultra-Orthodox). Tibi further clarified that the Joint List would support a government “from the outside,” meaning it wouldn’t actually be a part of the coalition but provide votes needed to maintain a majority.
One notable objection to the Joint List’s recommendation is one of its own factions, Balad, signaling there is still division that comprises the full impact of Arab parties on Israeli politics. Balad’s leadership insisted on not endorsing Gantz due to his background. He is the former commander-in-chief of the Israeli military from 2011 to 2015, meaning he was the highest official in the armed forces during the last war in Gaza. For Balad, as for all other factions in the Joint List, there is little daylight between him and Netanyahu.
However, Balad’s position is more tactic than ideology, and as a tactic, it is a harmful appeal meant to appease their base.
Balad’s popularity has waned over the past few years among Arab voters and especially following the breakup of the Joint List prior to the April elections, a development many hold Balad accountable for. In addition, during the 2018 municipality elections, Balad lost almost all of the mayoral offices they held to Hadash and others, most notably losing the mayoral elections in the Arab city of Sakhnin to a Hadash candidate. Furthermore, Balad’s power was significantly weakened in city councils across Israel. Therefore, following a very turbulent election in 2018 and 2019, Balad is looking to regain its power and influence among Arab voters.
Although the Joint List was in a difficult position, the decision it made reflected the message of many Arab voters when they went to the polls: take an active part in the government. Had Balad done that, it would have tipped the scales to Gantz to form a coalition and not Netanyahu.
Still, Balad chose to use the opportunity to win a favorable position among Arab voters, rather than do the correct political move which would have carried out sweet revenge on Netanyahu and his party. Therefore, Netanyahu still had a 55-54 majority in recommendations, which gave him the first shot at forming a coalition government. Thanks to Balad’s inaction, Netanyahu was able to extend the interval in which he is still the person who should lead the government.
A good portion of Palestinian citizens of Israel have long boycotted Israeli elections since the state was founded in 1948, but the Joint List changed that when it was established in 2015. In two national election results, it was voted in as the third-largest party in the country. Hence, it is only fitting that the Joint List decided to take an active part in determining who will form the next government.
This is a golden opportunity for the Joint List to gain massive influence in the Knesset. The Joint List must utilize its newly gained status as a major force in Israeli politics to project its power and legitimacy. For example, if Gantz and Netanyahu do form a unity government, that would make Odeh, as head of the Joint List, the leader of the opposition, which would mean that he would be briefed on any and all military operations that Israel carries out– even covert operations such as assassination attempts or targeted strikes. Moreover, if the Joint List becomes the largest party in the opposition it would mean that, come the distribution of committee assignments, many Arab members of Knesset would end up receiving assignments in committees they never had access to, such as Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where Israeli officials discuss highly sensitive issues that most likely involve Palestinians.
It is also worth noting the response from Gantz’s party, Blue and White, following the Joint List’s recommendation. In a statement, Knesset Member Moshe Ya’alon, head of the Blue and White delegation, said: “all Zionist parties” are welcome in the coalition – a statement clearly leaving out Arab parties, sending yet another message to them indicating Gantz’s unwillingness to even meet with them.
The choice at the end of the day is quite simple. There are two candidates for prime minister. One incites violence against Arabs and constantly carries out racist policies, and the other does the exact same but is called Gantz. Whoever ends up as prime minister, be it Gantz or Netanyahu, will not bring any change to the Palestinian community in Israel and will have no incentive to do so. Therefore, by recommending Gantz and ousting Netanyahu, the Joint List will at least get some retribution.