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Israeli-Arab voters succeed in forcing their will on party

What Israeli-Arab voters really want is integration into Israeli politics and for their representatives to participate in governing and decision-making.

With the fall holidays now over, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Oct. 21 that he would be returning his mandate to form a new government to President Reuven Rivlin. Two days later, the president gave the mandate to the chairman of the Blue and White party, Knesset member Benny Gantz. He now has 28 days to form a government to replace Netanyahu. It will not be easy — not now. It now looks like he will be unable to cobble together a majority to support a new government under him. He will probably not even be able to pull together a minority government, given the declaration of Knesset member Mtanes Shehadeh from the Arab Joint List. On Oct. 22, Shehadeh said that his Balad faction will not vote to support the formation of a minority government. If that is really the case, Gantz will likely find himself returning the mandate to the president a month from now. In that case, Knesset members will have 21 days to decide on one of their own to form a government. If that doesn’t help, and there is no way to resolve this crisis, Israel will have its third round of elections in less than a year.

If these elections do take place, it is quite possible that Netanyahu will no longer head the Likud party. On Oct. 10, the Likud Central Committee convened, to declare Netanyahu the party’s only candidate in this Knesset to form a government. But given the low turnout at the meeting, it is quite possible that even the Likud is beginning to come to terms with the idea that Netanyahu may no longer be the best candidate to ensure the party’s hold on power, even if he was once their ideal candidate. The possibility of this pressure bubbling up from below should not be discounted. It may even result in party members demanding that Netanyahu be replaced. It should not be taken for granted that these Knesset members will hand over the benefits of governance so willingly, especially after a decade in power. They may not be so keen to accept moving to the opposition benches.

Nevertheless, it seems as if the only person in the entire political system, who stands to benefit from a third round of elections, is Netanyahu. If it is finally decided to indict him, it is important for him to go to trial from the position of prime minister. The Blue and White party has no plans to let that happen. “A third round of elections could signal a crisis of trust in Israeli democracy. That is why I think that every effort must be made to examine every option. If it means avoiding a new election, no option should be ruled out,” Knesset member Ofer Shelah, a member of the Blue and White party’s negotiating team, told Al-Monitor. “There is, of course, one government that could last its full term, and that is a government made up of us and the Likud. We will insist that this government is formed as the result of a process in which we sit down with the Likud, talk and set guidelines. Only then other parties could join, based on agreement, and not as a bloc. Benny Gantz will serve as prime minister for the first two years, giving Netanyahu time to deal with his legal issues. If he overcomes the challenges facing him, then he will be prime minister [two years later]. If not, then someone else from the Likud will serve as prime minister.”

Given this political turmoil, it is worth noting the changes underway in the Arab Joint List. It all started with the Aug. 22 statement by the party’s leader, Ayman Odeh, that the party would be willing to join the coalition. This continued, when the party — excluding its Balad faction — recommended to the president that Gantz be tasked with forming a government, and with its refusal to reject the possibility of supporting a minority government. It did this even though the Blue and White party had not contacted them yet and despite Shehadeh’s declaration.

What this means is that the Arab street succeeded in forcing its will on the leadership of the Joint List. It has succeeded in initiating a new kind of discourse, which had not existed previously. It is a discourse rooted in a desire to integrate into Israel society and become part of the country’s circle of decision-makers. That is why we are hearing more and more statements from various parts of the Joint List, which do not reject future cooperation with Blue and White, in order to improve the situation of the Arab public and to help send Netanyahu home. After all, that is what most of the Arab public wants, given the incessant campaign of incitement, which Netanyahu waged and continues to wage against them, in his capacity as prime minister. This is what led to the party’s historic decision to recommend Gantz. It signaled that the Arab parties were returning to the political game, for the first time since 1992, when the Arab parties recommended Yitzhak Rabin for prime minister.

Shehadeh said, “When we voted to dissolve the Knesset last May, our goal was to help change the political map in Israel by increasing the voting rate among the Arab society, and in so doing, to win more seats. It is a fact that Netanyahu is now unable to form a new government. In other words, we are participating in the campaign to send Netanyahu home. As soon as the Blue and White party approaches us, we will hold an in-depth and democratic discussion about it, and we will make a decision. Traditionally, Balad’s position has been not to vote in support of a new government.”

Further evidence of changes in the Joint List can be found in the ongoing campaign of the last few weeks against violence in Arab society. The Arab public is starting to feel the effect of its representatives taking to the streets to demonstrate with them, chanting and shouting against the violence that is getting out of control in Arab society. These representatives are no longer satisfied with limiting their response to speeches to the Knesset plenum. Upon close inspection, it is doubtful whether the word “Palestine” appeared anywhere in the Joint List’s campaign in the last election, and if it did, it was not particularly prominent. That is because the Arabs have realized that as far as their agenda is concerned, there are more pressing issues, such as violence, housing, and so on.

In the end, the burden of proof also lies with the Jewish center-left. What its representatives must realize is that in Israel in 2019, they have no chance of resuscitating themselves and no chance of returning to power without the Arab public. That is why it must take a more serious look at the possibility of cooperation with the Arab society and the Arab parties, and why they must start including Arab candidates in the non-Arab party lists. This is their only chance to get Arabs to the polls again, so that more than 70% of the Arab public actually participates in the next election.

If the Arab society sees no new prospects on the horizon, and if it feels as if it is not being counted, it will go back to staying at home on election day, just as it did in the April election. Netanyahu knows this better than anyone who ran against him in the last decade.

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