The Guardian / March 5, 2020
Palestinians flocked to the Joint List party and denied the prime minister a majority. Now they could even help oust him
This election, the third in a year, was supposed to finally deliver Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory. His party, Likud, ran a relentlessly dirty campaign, which even Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, described as “awful and grubby”. Against the backdrop of his impending corruption charges, Netanyahu’s hope was that higher voter turnout would give Likud a majority.
But the election failed to deliver. Netanyahu and the parties loyal to him secured 58 out of 120 Knesset seats, three seats short of a majority. Third time unlucky, Netanyahu has, once again, been stopped in his tracks.
The credit for Netanyahu’s failure belongs to Palestinian citizens of Israel. The centrist Blue and White opposition maintained its size but failed to make any inroads into Netanyahu’s base. The union of left parties lost four seats. It was the Palestinian-led Joint List which was able to dramatically increase the turnout among Palestinian voters. In April 2019, the two parties representing Palestinian voters received 337,000 votes. In September, running together as the Joint List, they achieved 470,000, and in March 2020 they reached over 575,000; a more than 70% rise in one year. Without this surge, it is all but certain that Netanyahu would have been able to form a government.
Palestinian voters were motivated by a real sense of urgency. Netanyahu’s racist incitement against them has escalated in recent years. In November he described them as an existential threat for Israel. The Trump “peace plan”, endorsed by Netanyahu, called for the transfer of many Palestinian citizens to the future Palestinian “state”. The alarming prospect of being deprived of their citizenship, and forcibly removed to a fragmented Bantustan-style statelet in the West Bank, drove many to the polling booths.
No less important was the bold leadership of Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List. Odeh led a compelling campaign for Palestinian civic empowerment while challenging the Jewish-Israeli mainstream to think of a common political future. In September, the Joint List made shockwaves with its decision to endorse Benny Gantz – the leader of the centrist Blue and White – as candidate for prime minister. Gantz is a former chief of staff, who had previously boasted of bombing Gaza “back to the stone age”. For Palestinian citizens, endorsing such a candidate comes with enormous difficulties. But as Odeh emphasised, this was the lesser evil, compared with the danger of a Netanyahu government, the prospect of immediate annexation of the West Bank, and continued racism against Palestinian citizens inside Israel.
The Joint List’s overture articulated Palestinian citizens’ demands for meaningful participation in Israeli political life as equal citizens. In Israel’s 72 years of existence, no Palestinian party has ever been in government. The only slight deviation to this rule came during Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992-95 government, which, during the height of the Oslo negotiations, had a “confidence and supply” agreement with two Palestinian parties. Rabin’s willingness to rely on Palestinian members of Knesset was decried by the right wing, who regularly slammed his government as illegitimate as it lacked a “Jewish majority”. Many believe it was this alliance with Palestinian citizens that led to Rabin’s murder by a Jewish extremist in 1995.
The refusal to strike an alliance with Palestinian citizens remains the primary reason for the failure of the centre-left parties to reach power. It is clear that centre-left parties cannot form a government without Palestinian support; but these parties have resisted coming to terms with this reality. The racist logic of a “Jewish majority” still forms the basis of mainstream politics. As recently as last month, Blue and White pledged not to include the Joint List in its future government, despite its endorsement of Gantz. Some members of Blue and White are ideologically opposed to the inclusion of Palestinians; others are fearful that it would drive Jewish voters away.
Blue and White’s reluctance to form such an alliance is not surprising. In many ways, the party is a reincarnation of the Israeli Labour party of the 1970s and 1980s, before Rabin and the Oslo process. It is led by three former top generals, and while pragmatic in some terms, it is hawkish when it comes to relations with Palestinians. Blue and White has endorsed the Trump plan, and with some caveats, the annexation plans. It avoids mentioning the two-state solution.
In the past two decades, Israeli public opinion has shifted clearly to the right. With the demise of the two-state solution, Israel’s ethnocentrist character is deepening. The 2018 “nation state” law declared that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people exclusively. Under the Trump plan, Israel is expected to formalise its de facto annexation of the West Bank, and consolidate the constitutional structures of exclusion and discrimination of Palestinians.
Under such conditions, the Joint List’s success over the past year stands out. Its ability to articulate a vision of equal citizenship has had an effect on Jewish Israeli public opinion. More Jewish Israelis advocate the inclusion of Palestinians in the ruling coalition. The number of Jewish Israelis voting for the Joint List, while still very small, increased dramatically in the last election.
We are now back at square one. Netanyahu cannot form a government. He is now escalating his rhetoric against the Joint List, arguing that Palestinians should be excluded altogether from decision-making over government formation; that their votes in the Knesset should not count. Will the Blue and White opposition abandon this racist logic of a “Jewish majority”, and form an alliance with the Joint List in order to oust Netanyahu? This remains to be seen. The stakes could not be higher, not only for Netanyahu personally, but for Israel’s future: whether it will continue its slide towards a “democracy” for Jews only, or instead choose a path that could lead to meaningful equal citizenship and democracy.
Yair Wallach is a senior lecturer in Israeli studies and head of the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS, the University of London