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Netanyahu or Gantz: The tragic dilemma facing Israel's Palestinian citizens

The Joint List's recommendation of Gantz as prime minister dramatically alters the traditional political stance of Arabs in Israel
Members of the Joint List party sit next to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin as he began cross-party talks on 22 September over who should form a new government (Reuters)

Many people were hoping that the mid-September election in Israel would resolve the political mess that followed the previous election in April when neither of the two leading candidates for prime minister - Benny Gantz of the Blue and White alliance and Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud - garnered enough votes to form a government.

But that hope was quickly dashed within a few days when the votes were counted. The political blocs headed by both candidates fell short of securing the 61 seats required for a parliamentary majority.

Chaotic landscape 

On the right, the bloc headed by Netanyahu won 55 seats. It included Likud, Shas and the ultra-Orthodox Torah Judaism party as well as the far-right Yamina party headed by Ayelet Shaked. The centre-left bloc, headed by Benny Gantz, which includes Blue and White, the Joint List, Labor and the Democratic Union, secured 57 seats.

The degree of chaos in the Israeli political landscape today is indicated by the status of Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, who has proposed among other things the “transfer” of Arab citizens out of Israel entirely. Lieberman is one of the most extreme far-right politicians the country has ever seen.

The degree of chaos in the Israeli political landscape today is indicated by the status of Yisrael Beiteinu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman

Yisrael Beiteinu won eight seats but has joined neither the rightist bloc nor the centre-left bloc. Thus far Lieberman has refused to express support for either Gantz or Netanyahu, and is calling for a national unity government with the two major parties, Likud and Blue and White.

In the absence of a clear majority for either of them, both Gantz and Netanyahu have begun their quest to round up the required minimum of 61 Knesset seats to form a government. The first stop is the office of the Israeli president, where the heads of all political parties represented in the next Knesset must come to recommend their preferred candidate for the prime minister position.

Following those discussions, the president in turn recommends which of the candidates he believes has the best prospects to succeed in forming a government and formally tasks him with the job. If, within the legally mandated time period, that candidate fails to muster 61 seats, his rival is given an opportunity to assemble his own coalition. 

The highest priority

The decision as to which of the two candidates - Gantz or Netanyahu - to recommend to the president, or whether even to make a recommendation at all, has posed the first major challenge to the (mostly Arab) Joint List since it reassembled itself on the eve of the election.

The Arab parties have historically refrained from recommending Jewish candidates for prime minister, from either the right or the left

On the one hand, the Arab parties have historically refrained from recommending Jewish candidates for prime minister, from either the right or the left, because all of them lead Zionist parties that seek to preserve Jewish supremacy in Israel.

On the other hand, this latest electoral victory was - to a great extent - a referendum on the question of Netanyahu’s continued leadership, the end of which is sought more eagerly by Arab citizens in Israel than by any other constituency. And given Netanyahu’s increasingly unbridled incitement against Arab citizens over the course of his tenure in office, the yearning to put an end to his rule became the highest political priority. 

Dethroning Netanyahu

This dilemma sparked some trenchant discussion among the four parties comprising the Joint List, each with its own distinct political ideology. Ultimately (five days after the election, on 22 September), the Joint List recommended to the president that Gantz be named to form a government.

But the move was made with a heavy heart, based on the overriding need to do whatever was necessary to dethrone Netanyahu.

The Joint List's recommendation of Gantz as prime minister was made with a heavy heart, based on the overriding need to do whatever was necessary to dethrone Netanyahu

Balad, the Palestinian National Democratic party, remained opposed because of Gantz's bloody military record of Gantz when he served as Israeli army Chief of Staff between 2011 and 2015, and because of the likelihood that ultimately he will opt for a unity government that includes Likud and the far-right Lieberman. 

The decision by the Joint List was termed “historic” and duly applauded by many on the Jewish left in Israel. Bear in mind, however, that no such truly “democratic” celebration is possible in Israel, nor is there cause for such rejoicing.

The decision proves only one thing: The depth of the tragedy of Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose default choice was the man whose election campaign included boasting of having "returned Gaza to the Stone Age" during the Cast Lead war on Gaza (2008-09), who bragged about the massive numbers of Palestinians killed in that war and whose pronouncements show that he will not hesitate to do likewise again.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party on 22 September (Reuters)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, on 22 September (Reuters)

The Joint List representatives also presented the president with a list of their demands, including among other things the annulment of the Nation State Law, an end to the demolition of the homes of Arab citizens and official status for villages without it, an end to the occupation, etc. – but in practice, the gesture is merely a formality.

The list of demands needs to be presented not to the president but to Gantz, who not only did not promise anything to the Arab members of Knesset in exchange for their recommendation, but continues to dodge any suggestion of negotiating or partnering with them. Gantz has trouble even pronouncing the word “Arabs”, preferring during the campaign to talk about "Jews and non-Jews".

No government participation

Meanwhile, we should note that a recommendation in favour of this or that candidate to be tasked to form a government does not reflect willingness to join that government. Certainly no one is contemplating such a possibility vis-à-vis Arab members of Knesset.

The Arab parties are voicing a historic refusal to join an Israeli government as a matter of principle

But to assist in bringing down Netanyahu's regime in favour of a government headed by Gantz, the Joint List is not required to join Gantz’s coalition. Besides their recommendation of Gantz to the president, the Joint List can theoretically be part of the Knesset's voting bloc on which Gantz’s government relies, without themselves being part of the government.

There is a precedent from 1993 when Shas left the Rabin government after Israel signed the Oslo Accords and the five Arab Knesset members, without actually joining the government themselves, were part of a voting bloc that enabled the government to remain in power. 

If this question comes up, there will naturally also be a question as to the price Gantz is willing to pay for such support by the Arab parties from outside his coalition. But this is not entirely about a quid pro quo; the Arab parties are voicing a historic refusal to join an the Israeli government as a matter of principle, and not merely because in any case a government with Arab ministers would be considered illegitimate by a substantial majority of the Jewish public in Israel.

Between fire and brimstone

The Arab Knesset members know that their presence in the Knesset lends legitimacy to a government that engages in institutionalised discrimination against them, but the implied liability in actually joining the government is another thing entirely.

Netanyahu, the Joint List and a history of demonising the Palestinian voter
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In the Knesset, they can fight for the rights of the Arab minority and can oppose government policies whereas once they join the government, they are no longer the opposition, and the responsibility for Israeli policies falls on all members of the governing coalition.

Again, the question of Arab Knesset members’ inclusion in the government is not on the agenda, but nonetheless the Joint List has taken a dramatic step that alters the traditional political stance of Arab citizens of Israel. Arabs and Jews seeking greater political involvement on the part of Arab citizens lauded the decision and called it "historic".

And so it may be; but the hand of every Arab  legislator who voted for that decision must have trembled at the thought of its significance and of the responsibility thereby laid upon them when the day comes that Gantz, this time as prime minister, orchestrates another hellish massacre against the residents of Gaza.

In such an eventuality, those who applauded the decision today will presumably find it hard to live with their role - a not inconsiderable one - in having brought Gantz to power. The same dilemma naturally exists with regards to a Netanyahu regime, of course.

That’s how it is when you have to choose between fire and brimstone.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Orly Noy
Orly Noy is a journalist and a political activist based in Jerusalem.