A Gantz-led government, recipe for Jewish-Arab reconciliation?

Partnership with Arab and Muslim parties is not a "problem," but an opportunity to heal Israeli society and advance Jewish-Muslim reconciliation.

al-monitor Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz speaks to supporters following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's election, at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 3, 2020.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Mar 12, 2020

Does Israel’s interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believe that dialogue between the state’s Jewish majority and Muslim minority contribute to the interests of Israeli society, or does he believe that incitement and delegitimization of 20% of the public are preferable? The answer depends on when the question is asked.

Shortly after exit polls were aired on March 2 indicating victory for the right-wing ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu called for “healing the rift” and declared, “It’s time for reconciliation.” Two days later, with publication of the official tally, the “healing” made way for inciting and delegitimizing replaced reconciliation. The right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc got less seats than the center-left, but the prime minister decided to "calculate" the votes differently. According to the racist March 4 accounting Netanyahu presented publicly on a flip chart, the center-left political bloc accounts for no more than 47 Knesset seats. The Arab Joint List — the third-largest Knesset faction with a record 15 seats in the 120-seat legislature — did not figure in his arithmetic. For him, it is an abomination sullying Israeli democracy. “Such was the will of the people,” Netanyahu explained in analyzing the election results, minus their Arab component.

Which people? The Jewish people, of course. The “people” include voters of the right-wing Yamina alliance, among them Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz who supports annexing occupied territories and disenfranchising millions of their Palestinian residents, and advocates conversion therapy for gay people.

Then there is the leader of the “people” (Netanyahu himself), facing a March 17 trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu conducted extensive dealings over the past year with Itamar Ben-Gvir, the disciple of arch-racist Meir Kahane and admirer of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish settler who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994 and whose photo graced Ben-Gvir’s living room until recently. The same Netanyahu just accused his opponent Gantz, the general who led the Israel Defense Forces, of colluding with “terror supporters of the Joint List in a bid to cancel the people’s decision.”  In other words, 581,507 Israeli citizens who voted on March 2 for the Arab Joint List — among them thousands of Jews — support terrorism, including Knesset member Ofer Cassif of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party who is considered a totally kosher Jew. The democrat from Jerusalem’s Balfour Street went as far as to threaten, “My friends and I and millions of Israelis who voted for us will not let this happen.” How exactly does he intend to do so? A quarter century ago, a Jewish terrorist who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin paved Netanyahu’s way to power. These days the Shin Bet has done well in beefing up security around Gantz.

Netanyahu is not alone in dismissing the Arab vote. Two Blue and White Knesset members — Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel — have announced they would refuse to vote for a Gantz-led government that does not enjoy the support of a Jewish/Zionist Knesset majority. Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis of the center-left Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket declared that she would not support a government that relies on the votes of the Joint List, either. “I said this before the elections and I am saying so afterward,” she wrote on Facebook. In a barely veiled hint at Gantz, she slammed “leaders who committed themselves to acting with credibility and responsibility but are engaged these days in shameful lobbying.” By the way, her Facebook page also includes an interview with Ynet website last month, in which she said, “I have no problem with a narrow government supported by the Joint List."

Contrary to what Netanyahu and Levy-Abekasis think, partnership with Israeli Arabs and Muslims is not a “problem.” The willingness of the southern arm of the Islamic Movement (represented by Ra’am, one of the Joint List constituent parties) to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin a government led by Gantz, two other ex-army chiefs and one former deputy Mossad chief is actually a source of hope for improved relations between the two religions. The political constellation created by the latest elections offers an opportunity to build a Jewish-Arab coalition and foster Jewish-Muslim reconciliation. The political-social infrastructure of this partnership could be based on accepted democratic principles, such as equal opportunity, narrowing of socio-economic gaps, cultural autonomy and an end to the occupation.

As Israel found out in the days of the Arab Spring, the Islamist Movement recognizes the value of relations with the Jewish state. Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a staunch Islamist, nonetheless appointed a new ambassador to Israel and mediated between Israel and Hamas, contacts that resulted in a cease-fire ending the 2012 Israel-Gaza war. Then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman expressed satisfaction with Morsi’s declaration affirming Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel, to the Camp David Accord and to the fight against terrorism.

In his 2019 book “Muslims, Jews and Jerusalem: Ambivalence, Dialogue or Armageddon” (in Hebrew), Middle East scholar professor Moshe Maoz wrote that contrary to “pessimistic assessments of scholars, analysts and Jewish politicians and others … most Muslim elites and regimes (as opposed to wide swathes of the public) are not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.” His many studies on this issue, Maoz writes, indicate they are motivated by strategic-security interests, unlike Salafist jihadist groups, including the Sunni Islamic State and Shiite Hezbollah, and Iran of course, that espouse anti-Semitic and anti-Western ideologies and are a threat not only to Israel but to pragmatic Arab regimes. According to Maoz, resolution of the Palestinian issue would reduce or negate the motivation of radical Muslims, including Hamas, to fight Israel and the Jews.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Maoz draws a direct line between resolution of the national conflict and fostering interreligious reconciliation. He urges Israeli courage and vision in order to settle the Palestinian problem and the conflict over East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. He strongly believes that with Israeli-Arab and Jewish-Muslim peace and reconciliation, Arab and Muslim terrorism, as well as Iran's and Hezbollah animosity, are likely to decline significantly. "On Israel's domestic scene,” Maoz adds, “Jewish-Muslim reconciliation can be achieved not only through the settlement of the Palestinian problem, but also by accepting the Arab Joint List as a legitimate partner of a new coalition government headed by Gantz.”

The epidemic of racism Netanyahu is spreading and the hatred of others he is sowing have made this goal more important and urgent than ever.

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