Israel’s election may be over but the horsetrading to form a coalition government has only just started.
And as the third largest party in the Israeli parliament, the Joint List – a coalition of four parties representing Israel’s Palestinian citizens – has found itself in the middle of what promises to be a chaotic auction.
The Joint List faces an important test. It can engage in the coalition jostle in the hope that this might put it in a position to change Israel’s deeply embedded legal discrimination that has always rendered Palestinian citizens of Israel as second class citizens.
Or it can stay outside the fray for reasons of both principle and practicality. After all, the only option is Benny Gantz, of the Blue and White alliance, who has promised nothing to the 20 percent of Israel’s population that the Joint List represents or the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
That, however, could ensure the survival of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister whose anti-Palestinian bigotry is growing more pronounced every day, who has made it clear that he supports a never-ending apartheid state on all the territory of historic Palestine and who might even be angling for a war on Iran.
A long slog
A few days ago, the Joint List announced it was throwing its lot in with Gantz, breaking with decades of practice that has seen Palestinain parties refuse to support any Israeli government. (The last time they did was to bring Yitzhak Rabin to power on the back of a promise to pursue a peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization.)
Almost immediately, Balad, one of the four constituent parties of the Joint List, said its three parliamentarians would not endorse Gantz, who was chief of staff during Israel’s devastating offensive in Gaza in 2014. The Israeli military was accused of committing numerous war crimes during that attack by a United Nations fact finding mission.
“We have always said we won’t support recommending Gantz,” said Mtanes Shehadeh, the head of Balad. The Joint List was thereby forced to make clear that not all of its members backed Gantz.
That left Gantz short, though it has since been suggested that the Blue and White list did not ask for full support from the Joint List in a play to leave Netanyahu the task to try to form a government first.
As a result, it promises to be a long slog before there is a new Israeli government. Netanyahu, who commands the biggest single bloc of parties, even if his own party came only second, has duly been given first dibs on forming a new government.
He has 28 days. Whether he will spend all that time in what looks like a futile enterprise or give Gantz the opportunity to similarly flail remains to be seen.
Netanyahu is facing corruption charges and is primarily concerned with ensuring immunity from prosecution. Time is running out for him, something that is playing into everyone’s calculations, hence the suggestion that Blue and White did not want the Joint List’s full endorsement.
Yet almost anything can still happen. Netanyahu has always been a wily operator.
Gantz, meanwhile, who originally only wanted to be a senior partner in a Netanyahu-led government, may not quite know what to do with his narrow popular mandate.
A devil’s bargain
A unity government would leave the Joint List without influence. Worse, perhaps, having made the offer of endorsement, it could hurt the Joint List with its own electorate.
What, after all, was the point of striking a bargain with someone as unpalatable as Gantz without any pay-off?
It could be similarly harmful if no coalition is found and Israel heads to a third election in a year. The Joint List was always an uneasy alliance, forged by necessity in 2015, when the electoral threshold went up to 3.25 percent from 2 percent in part to prevent Palestinian parties from entering parliament.
Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, explained his rationale in an op-ed in The New York Times. It is clear from his argument that the decision was not made because of any new policies from Gantz, but rather to prevent Netanyahu from retaining power.
Countless people, he wrote, “in Israel and around the world will be grateful to see an end to Mr. Netanyahu’s long reign of corruption, lies and fear.”
Indeed. But Palestinian citizens have clear demands too, demands Odeh outlined in his article.
They need equal access to infrastructure, recognition of towns and villages and more resources – so long denied them – allocated to housing, schooling and medicine.
Above all, they need and must demand equality before the law and the repeal of the Nation State Law, which cements their status as second class citizens and defines Israel as a country in which the right to self-determination is restricted to Jews.
Officials from Blue and White offered them nothing. In the words of one: “I … told them they are important to Jewish citizens and Blue and White will advance them. That’s what we talked about with the Arabs.”
The Arabs. If Blue and White can’t even acknowledge the Palestinian national identity of the constituents of the Joint List, what is there to gain from supporting Gantz?
Until such a time that an Israeli leader appears on the scene who truly believes in equality, there can be no compromise for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. The Joint List would be better advised to keep building on the growing political engagement of its community which turned out in numbers: 60 percent in this election compared to 50 percent in April.
Playing the game is all very well. But “political maturity” cannot come at the cost of certain absolutely basic demands that Palestinians in Israel must insist on.