“No one is asking people to join, to get under the stretcher, and not have a say in the direction of the stretcher,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's interim prime minister, on March 15, using a familiar military term for jointly shouldering a load. He was referring to his invitation to opposition leaders to join an emergency unity government, under his leadership, to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Benny Gantz, Amir Peretz and Avigdor Liberman, chairs, respectively of the Blue and White, Labor and Yisrael Beitenu, received invitations, but Knesset member Ayman Odeh and his colleagues from the Arab Joint List were left off the list of invitees compiled by the man who is a lead defendant under criminal indictment for corruption.
Even in the fight against an epidemic that is afflicting all people, regardless of religion, race or nationality, Israel’s Arab citizens are not deemed fit by Netanyahu to carry the nationalist stretcher. They should simply be grateful that Arab doctors and nurses are being allowed to carry the stretchers of Jewish coronavirus patients.
Meanwhile, as Israel's leadership has kept itself busy excluding and inciting against the state’s 21% Arab minority, average citizens have displayed solidarity with their Arab neighbors. Poll results published March 15 showed that a majority of those surveyed (63%) believe Israel should help the Palestinians fend off the COVID-19 epidemic. The survey, conducted by Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for Peace by the Dialogue polling agency among a representative sampling of Jews and Arabs, points to a significant gap between younger Israelis, aged 18-24, and those 65 and older. While 80% of the older cohort supports assisting the neighbors, only 47% of the young display similar generosity.
These young people have clear role models. Even now, Netanyahu and his henchmen, chief among them Culture Minister Miri Regev, continue to fuel the fires of incitement against the politicians representing Arab voters, plus some 20,000 Jewish ones, calling them “terror supporters.” This is how the elected representative accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust seeks to “stabilize the State of Israel” after having broken all records for cynicism in riding the virus in his attempted flight from prosecution. Right after the March election, he was the one who implored his political rivals to “shed all the cynicism, all the doubts, and join together.” The world champion of political spin promised that an emergency unity government was “not a question of spin.”
The man who has dragged Israel into three elections in less than a year expects people to believe his calls for a unity government, ostensibly because of the epidemic, when he says “it is not a question of political whims.” This is the same politician who called early elections in December 2014 because of proposed legislation that, he claimed, threatened to damage his home court newspaper, Israel Today. In those days, he also shuttled between world capitals to save Israel from a “Persian potentate who threatens to destroy us,” as he claimed before a joint session of Congress in March 2015, warning against the nuclear deal with Iran. Although he called Iran an existential threat, Netanyahu led the struggle against the nuclear agreement to contain it after dismantling his government partnership with the centrist Yesh Atid and Hatnua. He did not regard the threat of an Iranian nuke as reason for a unity government.
Now, Netanyahu has promised Gantz and his friends that if they get under the stretcher they will have a “say.” Their main “say,” however, if not their only one, is to refuse to join a government led by an indicted criminal. If Netanyahu were to display national responsibility (as he expects Gantz to do) and relinquish his post to someone else from his party, all the obstacles to a coalition between the Likud and the center-left bloc would come tumbling down. A broad-based government would be formed immediately, ministerial positions would be generously apportioned, an emergency budget would be adopted by the Knesset, the siege of Gaza would remain in place, and the settlement enterprise would continue.
No one mentions the words “peace,” “negotiations” or “occupation” anymore. The Knesset sworn in on March 16 does not even have a narrow majority for the establishment of a Palestinian state or the dismantling of a single isolated West Bank settlement. Blue and White’s right-wing flank, Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, is even refusing to join a government dependent on Knesset support from the Arab lawmakers of the Joint List. The only Zionist Knesset members for whom the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its resolution are a priority are the half dozen lawmakers of the Labor and Meretz parties, minus Orly Levy-Abekasis, who ran with them on a joint ticket but has since refused to support an Arab-backed government.
Documents recently unclassified by the State Archives reflect the gap between the original positions held by the Jewish and Palestinian mainstreams. The minutes of a January 1994 discussion about Israel handing control of Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority illustrate this gap. According to the document, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres told Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “You are giving them a lousy thing. You would not have agreed [to accept it].” Rabin responded, “Ben-Gurion would have agreed to accept the partition plan,” adding, “He [PLO leader Yasser Arafat] is getting a tremendous thing. He never dreamed.”
The vast majority of Jewish Israelis do not recognize that in the partition plan advocated by the most moderate Palestinians, the border of their future state runs along the Green Line or that all the settlements Israel built to its east were erected on foreign land. The pervasive view in Israel paints the Palestinians as serial rejectionists who never miss an opportunity to miss generous opportunities, including President Donald Trump’s recently unveiled West Bank annexation plan, the incongruously dubbed “deal of the century.”
While the spread of the coronavirus generates panic, Israelis have reacted with equanimity to the strengthening occupation virus verging on apartheid. While the coronavirus kills its victims, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict people kill each other. At some point, a cure will presumably be developed for COVID-19 and perhaps even a vaccine against the virus that has declared war on humanity. On the other hand, there is no sign of a cure being found for the disease of the occupation. Instead of investing in efforts to boost Israel’s immune system against nationalist and religious zealotry, Israelis are submitting to leaders who undermine the immune system of their country's democracy.
Sadly, glad tidings for the people of Israel will not emerge from the 23rd Knesset. After Israelis get a taste of life under siege, albeit a light one, maybe they will start to understand what their Palestinian neighbors have been experiencing for years and realize that a cure must be found for that virus, too.