Israel’s political system is currently ensnared in a dizzying spiral the likes of which it has never known. The unprecedented decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict an incumbent prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust has rattled Israeli politics, which was already suffering from deep polarization, and this is just the beginning. In a nationally televised response to Mandelblit’s announcement of the indictments on Nov. 21, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he is being subjected to an “attempted coup.”
Netanyahu and his blind supporters, who deny the charges against him and do not respect the courts' rulings, appear to have decided that going forward, all is fair. Netanyahu, heavily influenced by his legal woes, will push Israel into a third election in less than a year to gin up public support at the ballot box in the hope that his supporters will at least acquit him in the court of public opinion.
To achieve this goal, Netanyahu has to hold fast to the bloc of ultra-Orthodox parties he has built and cemented around himself. He does not, however, appear to grasp that Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman, whose party holds the deciding votes in the current political deadlock, has not only put him in a bind, but has also created an “alliance of the underprivileged” that will inevitably cause cracks in his protective bloc.
Liberman, who under the current constellation has the power to decide who will be Israel’s next prime minister, is seeking to exclude the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs from power. Thus, these two groups, which would seem to have nothing in common save a possible desire to join forces against Liberman’s onslaught of incitement against them, are striking up a surprising “friendship.”
Israel’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox citizens — together constituting at least 30% of the population — are the country’s poorest demographic and the largest beneficiaries of its social welfare services. While Netanyahu and his right-wing allies shower generous budgets on the Jewish West Bank settlements and provide their residents with an array of benefits, members of the Arab Joint List and of the two ultra-Orthodox parties have to work hard to advance legislation that benefits their voters.
“There is constant dialogue between us,” Knesset member Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List told Al-Monitor's Afif Abu-Much. “They have issues dear to their heart, and we do too. We try to reach understandings and not to clash on these issues, but sometimes their positions and ours do clash.” Given the latest political developments, the Arab and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers seem to have no choice but to deepen cooperation and set aside their differences.
The first sign of their alliance appeared in the Knesset following Netanyahu’s harsh Nov. 13 speech accusing the 13 lawmakers for the Joint List of supporting and encouraging terrorism. At the start of the Nov. 19 session of the Knesset Finance Committee, Chair Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah, thanked his committee colleague Tibi for his ongoing cooperation.
“You know how to leverage [this cooperation] for the benefit of the public you represent. You do so with great skill. We see it in the Arab communities too. There is development, and you have played a large role in this, and I thank you for it,” Gafni said. Gafni’s ultra-Orthodox colleague Yinon Azoulai of Shas seconded his assessment, asserting, “With the [Joint] List and Ahmad there always was cooperation, and it is always possible to do more.”
Those present in the committee room were surprised by the compliments, except for Tibi himself, who had expected such a gesture from the ultra-Orthodox, with whom the Arabs have long cooperated for the sake of their two impoverished and weakened societies. Liberman’s harsh attack on the two minority groups has served to bolster their cooperation, which might now be upgraded into a more significant political friendship.
Liberman, emboldened by his kingmaker status, had also announced a new electoral reform initiative to resolve the ongoing political deadlock. Speaking to members of his Knesset faction on Nov. 20, he argued for forming a ruling Zionist coalition of the major Jewish parties, thus excluding the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab parties.
“The clear and present danger is the anti-Zionist coalition of the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Knesset members,” Liberman said. “This is truly an anti-Zionist coalition active in both blocs [left and right]. The Joint List is a real fifth column; there is no need to whitewash and hide it. Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox community and its political parties, too, are becoming increasingly anti-Zionist, and it’s time to stop this nonsense that only their fringes [are opposed to the State of Israel].”
Liberman's political acuity has led him to sense that the Arabs and ultra-Orthodox are forging a potentially significant alliance. Netanyahu senses it as well. Such cooperation could crush the protective right-wing and ultra-Orthodox bloc of 55 seats that Netanyahu has built and undermine his mantra that the formation of a center-left minority government supported by the Arab parties would be nothing short of a mass national terror attack.
In the political vision that Liberman laid out, which enjoys broad support among Israelis fed up with the current political status quo, the electoral system would be reformed to allow voters to directly elect the prime minister rather than voting for parties, permitting the formation of Zionist governments without the Arab and ultra-Orthodox parties he despises.
Members of the Joint List are all too familiar with being targets of incitement and delegitimization by Netanyahu and others, but for Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, which have tied their fate to that of Netanyahu, this is a new experience. Thanks to Liberman, they too are now illegitimate, just like their Arab Knesset colleagues. Representatives of these two groups understood right away that unless they joined forces to torpedo Liberman’s initiative, it could destroy or at least considerably weaken them.
The last time Liberman tried to “bury” the Arab parties, he sponsored legislation raising the electoral threshold in 2014 so that only parties winning 3.25% of the vote could send representatives to the Knesset. The move, designed to exclude the small Arab parties, backfired, uniting the ideologically disparate parties into a single list. This forced union then overtook Liberman’s faction. As of the September elections, they are the third biggest Knesset faction, with 13 seats, while Liberman’s party has eight.
“Eventually, we will have no choice but to join forces with the ultra-Orthodox to torpedo any initiative designed to eliminate us,” a Joint List Knesset member told Al-Monitor, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Together, we have 29 [out of 120] Knesset members, and we can make Liberman’s life miserable.”
Such a relationship would oblige the ultra-Orthodox to abandon the Netanyahu bloc, which did nothing for them anyway, and to launch a joint struggle against Liberman and any initiative designed to delegitimize them. For the sake of the sacred goal of survival, there is no need for an ideological glue other than shared destiny, as the four Arab parties – Ta’al, Ra’am, Balad and Hadash — realized in uniting against Liberman and forming the Joint List.