Gantz’ silence on incitement could cost him premiership

As long as the center-left does not start integrating Arabs on their party lists for the Knesset, the political balance will not change and Israel would still be trapped by political deadlock.

al-monitor Leader of Blue and White party Benny Gantz delivers a statement during the party faction meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, Nov. 25, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Dec 5, 2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been waging a campaign against the formation of a minority government headed by the Blue and White party with support of the Arab Joint List from outside the coalition, calling such a government “an existential threat to the State of Israel” on Nov. 17. And as one could expect, this campaign had an effect on the field.  On Nov. 30, Joint List Knesset member Ahmad Tibi arrived at a cultural event in Ramat Hasharon, and discovered that right-wing activists were “waiting for him” at the entrance. They tried to prevent his entry, yelled “murderer, terrorist, glorifier of martyrs” at him, and even tried to physically hurt him.

The attack on an Arab Knesset member has not changed anything in the Israeli political agenda and has not led to a wave of condemnations by Israeli politicians, except for perhaps a remark by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz at the beginning of the party meeting Dec. 2, denouncing the violent discourse and acts against groups in the Israeli society.

Here the question is asked: If it had been an attack on a Jewish member of Knesset in an Arab town would it have passed without wall-to-wall condemnation by the political establishment? “If a Jewish public persona entered an Arab town and someone gave him a light hit with a stick or thrown sand at him, it would have turned into a national story,” Tibi told Al-Monitor, adding that at the Knesset plenum Dec. 2, “Gantz rose from his seat and shook my hand and expressed solidarity following the attack.” All the same, it seemed that Gantz feared expressing explicit solidarity and directly condemning Tibi’s attack in public. This reluctance of being associated with Arab Knesset members is apparently also the reason that Blue and White gave up on collecting 61 signatures for the president, to propose a majority coalition. They feared adding fuel to the Likud’s anti-Arab campaign by signing on Knesset members from the Joint List.

One can’t write off an attack on a Knesset member at a public event. Whoever can reach a member of Knesset with a stick in order to harm him could do so with a firearm, especially as Knesset members travel without security. Tibi explained this at the same event when he said, “If a government would form with external support from the Joint List, I expect that one of us would be assassinated.”

A week before the deadline to form a government, at midnight on Dec. 11, it seems that Israel is on a sure path to a third election. The meeting between Netanyahu and Gantz on the evening of Dec. 3 ended in less than an hour without results, and with mutual accusations regarding the dead end. Gantz claimed that for Netanyahu “immunity is above everything,” and Netanyahu responded “for Gantz [Blue and White senior Yair] Lapid is above everything.”

To the next election, if indeed no government is formed, Netanyahu will arrive with an indictment for crimes of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In the Likud a new-old player is lying in wait for him: former Minister Gideon Saar, who decided to challenge Netanyahu’s rule and is demanding a primary. Saar is using a smart argument when saying to Likud members that if someone failed to form a government twice there is no reason he would succeed in doing so the third time. Saar is trying not to anger Likud supporters so that he does not appear to be undermining Netanyahu, and is broadcasting that he is concerned about Likud rule.

As time passes, more and more mayors and party activists are expressing support for Saar’s position and his call to hold a primary. Prominent among them is Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank, who heads a large group of Likud members. Dagan’s support for Saar is not a trivial matter. This is a person Netanyahu has given much attention in light of his status among Likud members and settlers, and whom he frequently praises.

As long as primaries are indeed held in the Likud, the assumption in the Saar camp is that the average Likud member would sacrifice Netanyahu in order to remain in power, especially since Netanyahu is no longer the undisputed magician who always pulls a rabbit out of his hat and wins the election. A hint for what is to come could be seen in the demonstration Nov. 26 in support of Netanyahu, which was attended by only 7,000 people (according to the estimate of the Globes newspaper and as supported by data from the cellular companies). This was a demonstration organized, engineered and planned by Netanyahu and his circle, who bussed in demonstrators, and still only a few thousand people attended. Except for three members of Knesset, all of the party’s ministers and Knesset members were absent. Is there greater expression of no confidence than this?

On the side of Blue and White, it seems that they have not yet learned that in order for the center-left to form a government it would need to reach the magic number of 61 Knesset seats, including the Joint List, without the ultra-Orthodox parties and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. Right now, Blue and White, Labor-Gesher, the Democratic Camp and the Joint List have 57 mandates together. Ahead of the next election, Blue and White should consider how to act to widen the bloc by four additional mandates.

In light of its failure to bring in votes from the right side of the political map, the only reserve of voters that has been under-tapped by the center-left bloc is the Arab public (about 60% of eligible Arab voters participated in the September elections). In order for the Arab public to go out and vote in droves, two scenarios must happen. The first is that the Joint List stops acting like a closed exclusive club and opens its gates to the whole Arab community, as I wrote in an earlier article. The second is that the center-left parties would include Arab Muslim and Christian candidates in their lists. Their boycott in order to look “right wing” has already proven to be a total failure and has not led to a government. Thus, if Gantz truly wants to be prime minister, he must open Blue and White to Arab candidates.

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