Israeli Palestinians may be the last defence against Netanyahu’s return to power

Lloyd Green

The Guardian  /  October 31, 2022 

If too many abstain in the election on 1 November, the way could be clear for a coalition featuring Jewish supremacists.

On 1 November, Israel votes in a general election for the fifth time since spring 2019. Recent polls show that the country’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his right-wing coalition are just shy of clinching victory. Sixty-one seats in the Knesset, the 120-seat parliament, is the magic number. As fate would have it, Israeli Palestinian voters may determine the outcome.            

In 2021, Israeli Palestinians were instrumental in ousting Netanyahu from office. This time, however, they may give him a boost by simply sitting on their hands: if they stay at home, the odds of Netanyahu and his allies returning to power markedly improve. Reports are already pointing to an expected low turnout.

Israeli Palestinians possess the right to vote and, on paper, many of the same rights as Jews. They constitute a fifth of Israel’s population and are citizens. But in the words of the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, they “face widespread discrimination”, and many self-identify as Palestinians.

In the 21st century, being an Englishman or an American could mean being something other than white and Protestant. Israeli, on the other hand, remains synonymous with Judaism. The words to Hatikva, the national anthem, make that clear. “As long as in the heart, within, / The soul of a Jew still yearns,” it begins. “An eye still gazes toward Zion,” it continues. “To be a free nation in our land, / The Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” it concludes. In 2018, Israel enacted the Nation State law, which demoted Palestinian from an official state language.

So the urge to abstain from voting possesses a certain logic. Those who advocate boycotting the election see themselves as rejecting Israel’s legitimacy, and that of local Palestinian-Israeli political leaders, a sentiment I heard as I spoke to students on the campus of Haifa university.

With the Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan being party to the Abraham Accords, any arguments questioning Israel’s existence sound like a bitter denial of reality. Direct Palestinian-Israeli involvement in the political system, however, has yielded its own disappointments.

In 2021, Mansour Abbas, an Israeli Palestinian, brought his Ra’am party into the governing coalition led by Yair Lapid, the current centrist prime minister, and Naftali Bennett, his nationalist predecessor. “The state of Israel was born as a Jewish state, and the question is how we integrate Palestinian society into it,” Abbas announced at a December 2021 business conference.

To many, he had betrayed the Palestinian dream. By summer 2022, Abbas and his party were out, the value of their foray into Israeli politics hotly debated. On one hand, Abbas had succeeded in obtaining funding and infrastructure projects. On the other, the Palestinian parties had failed to stay the government’s hand in the West Bank or Gaza.

Abstentions, however, could have serious consequences: the empowerment of unvarnished Jewish supremacists. Some might even equate that with cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

The alliance known as Religious Zionism, a political aggregation of neo-Kahanists, would probably be handed the levers of power in a Netanyahu-led government. In return, they would support short-circuiting Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption and bribery trialItamar Ben-Gvir, who heads the bloc, has expressed support for a “retroactive French law” that would bar criminal investigations of a sitting prime minister. Talk about a quid pro quo.

Ben-Gvir is overtly hostile to Israeli Palestinians, and has little regard for liberal norms: he is a populist to his core. His supporters in Jerusalem are young and audible. They view him as an immovable impediment to Netanyahu bringing Palestinian parties into the government, a possibility that the former prime minister previously entertained.

As a younger man, Ben-Gvir was a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a US export who ran afoul of the law in both countries. Until recently, a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of the 1994 Hebron massacre and another US export, hung in Ben-Gvir’s living room.

Recently, he raised the possibility of deporting Palestinian-Israeli politicians deemed to be disloyal. By contrast, Jewish politicians would not be subject to such sanction. He has also pledged to go easy in cases involving Israel’s military and law enforcement,

The convergence of Ben-Gvir’s and Netanyahu’s ambitions and intentions is overt. On Sunday, Ben-Gvir demanded to be named public security minister. Israel’s police fall under his remit of choice. Netanyahu quickly signalled that he was game: “Ben-Gvir will be a minister in the government only if I form it.” Imagine if Donald Trump Jr were running the FBI for his dad.

All this leaves Israeli Palestinians in a quandary. On election day, every vote will count – including, or even especially, those not cast.

Lloyd Green is a New York attorney, and served in the US Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992