For a brief moment, it truly seemed like something could change here. The Joint List, made up of Israel’s four dominant Palestinian political factions, which surged in last week’s elections, seemed ready to once again put aside its serious and justified misgivings and vote for a government led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. With their support, Gantz was poised to unseat Netanyahu as Israel’s longest-standing prime minister.
Barring two MKs, the Blue and White party, which ran a far-right campaign that pledged to lead a “Jewish majority” government, was willing to form a minority government with the backing of the Joint List that could oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The last and only time this has ever happened in Israeli history was in 1993, when Israel’s Arab parties agreed to keep Yitzhak Rabin in power in order to fully realize the Oslo Accords.
On Tuesday evening, the glimmer of hope that bitter rivals — Israel’s Palestinian leadership and an anti-Netanyahu party run by mostly former generals — could momentarily work together faded in a heartbeat. Two Blue and White party members, Tzvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, had already announced they would not vote in support of a government that cooperates with the Joint List, and particularly its Balad faction, which supports a state for all citizens in Israel.
That decision surprised few. Hauser holds hawkish views and is one of the initiators of the Jewish-Nation State Law, which enshrines the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Hendel is a former Likud member who, disgusted with Netanyahu’s corruption, defected from the ruling party and joined Blue and White, bringing his racist worldview along with him.
The nail in the coffin came on Tuesday night when Orly Levy, who ran as part of a Zionist left-wing alliance with the Labor Party and Meretz, said she would not vote in favor of a minority government backed by the Joint List. This after she joined up with Labor Party’s Amir Peretz, who himself vowed to work alongside the Palestinian parties. Even Levy herself, in a television interview in the run-up to last year’s September elections, said she would work with the Joint List. Without Levy, Hauser, and Hendel, Gantz simply won’t have the necessary number of backers to try and form a government.
The disappointment bordering on fury among the Israeli left was palpable. Levy, once a member of Knesset in Avigdor Liberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, had long sought to rebrand herself as a socially minded activist far more interested in public housing and health than upholding Jewish supremacy. Her pledges to include an “equality clause” in the Jewish Nation-State Law and growing opposition to the hardline, anti-Palestinian policies of the hyper-nationalist right made her more palatable to centrists and leftists who were otherwise suspicious of her politics.
But by turning her back on the Joint List, and on the voters who supported her and believed she would give her blessing to a minority government, Levy has driven a stake through one of the most delicate and potentially revolutionary moments in contemporary Israeli politics.
It is yet unclear whether Levy, Hauser, or Hendel might ditch the anti-Bibi bloc and back Netanyahu for prime minister, giving him the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a governing coalition. If they do not defect, and barring any other last-minute surprises, the most likely outcome will be a fourth round of elections. What is clear, however, is how powerful the fear of Jewish-Palestinian partnership remains in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s decade-long campaign to turn Palestinian politicians into public enemies has created a situation in which members of the very camp that set out to replace the prime minister will be the ones to keep him on the throne — so long as it means keeping Palestinian political power in check.
Last week was a good one for the Joint List. The party that had been plagued by infighting for the past four years was able to increase its Knesset seats, add another two female MKs, and significantly increase its support among Israeli Jews disappointed by the flailing Zionist left. But perhaps most importantly, it means that after decades of back-benching in the opposition where they were disregarded by nearly every party on the Zionist political spectrum, the mainstream can no longer ignore the fact that Palestinian political power is integral to any future functioning Israeli government that seeks to replace Netanyahu.