The country has chosen unity, the country has chosen Israel first,
said Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Thursday, after the vast majority of Israel’s September 17th election votes indicated that his party had a slight lead on Netanyahu’s Likud (now 33-31, official results coming on Wednesday). None of the two seem to have prospects of creating a government that is other than a unity government combining their two parties, since Avigdor Lieberman is insisting on that with his kingmaker role of 8 seats. Both wider blocs (right and center-left) fall under the 61-seat threshold without Lieberman.
When you say “America first” today, you know what it means. It means white supremacy. In Israel, when you say “Israel first”, you also know what it means – it means Jewish supremacy, also known as Zionism. But in Israel, for some reason, this notion is accepted as an absolutely mainstream notion. Zionism above all else, it’s not considered racist.
Now recently, a big thing has happened: the Joint List, which mostly represents Palestinian citizens, and which is the 3rd biggest vote-getter with 13 seats, has endorsed Benny Gantz for becoming Prime Minister.
This was first reported as meaning that the center-left bloc has an advantage of 57 seats against the right bloc’s 55. But it turns out that there is a disagreement within the Joint List about this. One of the four factions, Balad (which stands for a secular democratic state) has insisted that “Gantz is planning on forming a government with Liberman and Likud”, and therefore “a recommendation for him is a recommendation for a unity government, which is even worse that a right-wing one.”
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, had insisted in his overture to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that he brought the support of all 13 representatives, but this is now moot. According to the Jerusalem Post, the support actually available to Gantz is down to 54, one seat under Netanyahu’s 55.
Lieberman’s 8 seats are the principal undecided seats. So once again, without the Lieberman support, neither bloc makes it, and Lieberman is not going to sit with the Joint List, whom he calls the “enemies”.
So everything is pointing to the center, that Zionist center, which is actually a right-of-center bloc. President Rivlin has pointed to it saying that “the people of Israel want a government that will be stable”, and that “a stable government cannot be a government without both of the two largest parties.”
The head of the Blue and White delegation to the President is Moshe Ya’alon, the former Defense Minister, who is third in party leadership and a dedicated supporter of the Israeli settlement project. Ya’alon said he would welcome “all Zionist parties” in the coalition, meaning not the Joint List, and the Joint List know that they would be in the opposition in any case.
President Rivlin is going to decide at the earliest Wednesday evening when the final results become official, whether to give the first shot at forming a government coalition to Gantz or Netanyahu. There are various considerations that influence such a decision. One is the size of the leader’s party. In this case Gantz is leading but only slightly. Another consideration is the prospect of forming a future coalition. In this case none of the two has it without Lieberman, who seeks to exclude both the right and the left flanks: 24 seats of the religious and right parties (United Torah Judaism, Shas and the religious-nationalist Yamina), and 24 seats of the Zionist left (Democratic Union, Labor-Gesher) and Joint List. So Lieberman is not endorsing any candidate for Prime Minister at this point, yet going for a unity of the two main parties and his own Yisrael Beitenu as “the only option”.
Rivlin is eager to get a unity deal. He says that the Israeli public is “disgusted” by the prospect of a third election (the September election was a do-over since the earlier April election failed to result in a government).
What has been guiding many of the ‘liberal Zionists’ has been the notion of “just not Netanyahu”. Netanyahu has been a great gift for these people, since they could say they oppose Netanyahu, and poof! You’re a liberal! Bari Weiss, one of the Zionist pundits at the New York Times, in an interview with Bill Maher, distinguished between Zionism and what she called “Bibiism” (using Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname Bibi):
These are two very distinctive things. I am a huge critic of the current Prime Minister of the State of Israel. I believe that just as the Jews have a claim to the land, so too do the Palestinians, and if Israel wants to be a democratic, liberal state, there need to be two states.
Well that’s just great, but those “two states” are not on the table for Gantz anyway, who just chided Netanyahu for stealing his idea of annexing the Jordan Valley. So is Bari Weiss actually pointing to a true alternative? No, just “not Bibi”.
And the Joint List, at least the part of it that endorsed Gantz, is also part of this “just not Bibi.” Ayman Odeh said to President Rivlin,
We are looking for the way to prevent Netanyahu from being prime minister, and that is what most of the public wants.
So there’s a great danger here. It is a danger of the relative legitimacy that a unity government may receive, for policies which, on the most critical political front vis-à-vis Palestinians, are not different from those of a Likud government. And that’s how to understand Balad’s claim that such a unity government is even worse than a right-wing one. Because that unity government, especially if it is going to be led by Gantz, is going to make it easier to legitimize the Israeli Apartheid status quo. And that’s what most Israelis want.
They wouldn’t mind that Gantz, the butcher of Gaza, who boasts about returning it to the “stone age” and longs to return to the days of glory which include more systematic extrajudicial assassinations, will lead the country, because after all that’s so Zionist. And he’s less crass than Netanyahu, and surely less corrupt too, so it’s a good image. People are tired of Netanyahu, change the poster.
It must be a huge conundrum for a Palestinian who can vote in Israel. Everything you do only ends up as damage control, whatever you do ends up being “Israel first” – meaning “Palestinians last”.