Middle East Eye / March 10, 2020
It is time to forgo the illusion of inclusion and to mobilise around a radical project of decolonisation.
Israel just held its third round of parliamentary elections in a span of a year. While neither of the two frontrunners – Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or Benny Gantz’s Blue and White – won a majority, a clear victor was the Joint List, an alliance of four Palestinian parties in Israel.
Not only did the Joint List maintain its power as the third-largest party in the Knesset (after Likud and Blue and White), it increased its number of representatives from 13 to 15 seats, gaining tens of thousands of new supporters. The number of seats, and the fact that four Palestinian women will become members of parliament, is an unprecedented achievement.
On Monday, according to news reports, Benny Gantz began wooing the Palestinian Joint List in an attempt to form a government after coming to an agreement with Israel’s kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman.
Success of the Joint List
Palestinians clearly voted at higher rates than in previous elections. One driving factor was US President Donald Trump’s Israel-Palestine plan, which includes a proposal to transfer villages in the Triangle area to the Palestinian state, effectively stripping some 250,000 Palestinians of their Israeli citizenship.
Another element was the resounding success of the Joint List’s campaign, which had two main pillars: one was anti-Bibi sentiment: against Netanyahu’s voting intimidation tactics and his 2015 racist warning that Arab voters were “heading to the polling stations in droves”, the Joint List urged Palestinians to do just that in protest at Netanyahu’s incitement and delegitimisation of Palestinian citizens and their leaders.
The second pillar was to establish the Joint List as Israel’s democratic camp and the only true leftist bloc, part of a wider agenda of strengthening Jewish-Arab alliances. As a result, the Joint List increased its power among Jewish voters dismayed by the alliance between Meretz, Labour and Gesher.
In recent months, the political deadlock in Israel has drawn attention to the Joint List and its seemingly growing power in the Israeli political landscape. Time magazine called Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, who aspires to be the Palestinian Martin Luther King, a “possible kingmaker” and included him in its list of 100 rising stars. Similarly, the New York Times declared: “Netanyahu’s fate may depend on Israeli Arab voters.”
Last hope for liberal Zionists
Palestinians in Israel have become the last hope for liberal Zionists, who realised that replacing Netanyahu was impossible without the Joint List. Palestinian citizens were hailed as the potential saviours of liberal Israel. The Joint List embraced this role wholeheartedly, with Odeh declaring: “We will decide who will be the next prime minister of Israel.” He called on Gantz “to be brave, just like Yitzhak Rabin was in 1993.”
Yet, the Israeli political game remains an exclusively Jewish space, where Palestinians and their representatives are not perceived as legitimate actors. On 4 March, Netanyahu declared that he had won the elections because “Arabs are not part of the equation”, a statement that has a strong hold across the vast majority of the Zionist political spectrum.
During the previous election round, when the Joint List (with the reservation of Balad) rushed to endorse Gantz – the general who took pride in returning parts of Gaza to the “Stone Age” – as their choice for prime minister, Gantz rebuffed the gesture. In this last round, Gantz declared he would form a government only with a Jewish majority.
The increase in the electoral power of Palestinians in Israel ought not to be mistaken as an increase in their political power. Whether they have 13 or 15 seats, the Joint List’s power will always be limited in the Jewish-only landscape.
The obstacle to gaining power or influencing policy is not seat count or political savvy; the obstacle is structural, rooted in the foundations of the Israeli state itself. Israel is a racist, settler-colonial state, and its architecture and legal infrastructure are premised on maintaining a racial distinction and hierarchy between Jews and Palestinians.
Erasure and ethnic cleansing
This is clearly evidenced by Israel’s nation-state law, which stipulates that the right to self-determination is an exclusive right of the Jewish people, along with more than 60 other laws that discriminate against Palestinians in historic Palestine. As a state built on the erasure and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Israel is intrinsically structured to deny its Palestinian citizens influence.
And yet, the Joint List aspires to be integral part of the Israeli political landscape. Its agenda is to democratise Israel, presenting a leftist democratic alternative.
But this agenda is based on the dangerous normalisation of Israel, viewing Israel as an entity that can be reformed and transformed. Furthermore, the Joint List tells us, Palestinian citizens of Israel ought to lead this process.
A question that Palestinian leaders have failed to adequately address thus far is the legitimacy of the Israeli state. As citizens, we have a complex relationship with the state; we have to engage with it and we are part of its political landscape, whether we like it or not.
That said, our position as citizens should not be used to dismiss important questions about how we see our relationship with the state. Are we merely discriminated-against citizens, who can fight for justice and equality from within the system, or are we colonised subjects in a system that will always reject us?
Is Netanyahu and his racism the problem, or just the symptom, of Israel as a racist, settler-colonial state?
We need to ask ourselves whether we want – and what does it mean – to assume the role of kingmakers. Do we want to be the ones to decide who will be the next Israeli leader to bomb Gaza and to continue the occupation and colonisation of Palestine?
This is neither a marginal concern, nor a matter of pragmatism; it is a fundamental and principal issue.
This is not necessarily a call to boycott Israeli elections, but rather a call to rethink the misconceptions that we hold and are fed – also by our representatives – about the possibility to engender change from within the system.
It is time to forgo the illusion of inclusion, to think outside the parameters of the Israeli state and Israeli citizenship, and to mobilise around a radical project of decolonisation. This project should be a Palestinian project, not an Israeli one.
As writer Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Sometimes we have to use the master’s tools, but we should not stake our struggle on them.
For more than 70 years, we have tried to integrate into the master’s house. We have failed. We need to move beyond a project that strives to make Israel a better and more equitable entity, to a project that centres on dismantling the settler-colonial state altogether.
Lana Tatour is the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University.