The Israeli right’s inability to deal with the Joint List’s growing political power became crystal clear on Wednesday evening. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indulged in a racist calculation that delegitimized the more than half a million people who voted for the Joint List on Monday — saying he had won among Zionist voters because “Arabs are not part of the equation” — Likud MK Miki Zohar appeared on television and proposed that his party overcome its failure to reach 61 seats by approaching Palestinian voters in order to save the right.
One can easily mock this statement; the Likud do not have the foggiest idea of how to approach the Palestinian public, much less how to assemble a strategy and organizational infrastructure to do so. But it is also interesting: even though Netanyahu is not counting the Palestinian vote — at a meeting of the heads of right-wing parties on Wednesday, he tallied the votes for the “Zionist right” and the “Zionist left” while ignoring the Joint List’s election haul — Zohar is. And what’s more, Zohar is counting on them to pave the way to a right-wing government.
This ambivalence characterizes the current pursuit of a law to prevent anyone under indictment from forming a government. The process is being led by Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah and Joint List MK Ahmed Tibi — despite Blue and White having just promised its voters that it would only sit in a “Jewish-majority” government, and attempting to exclude the List from any coalition.
This is hardly the first time that Palestinian parties or politicians have been involved in pushing legislation in the Knesset, but this is about more than just a law. Rather, this is legislation that could change the rules of politics in Israel-Palestine, and which could end Netanyahu’s political career.
The fact that the Joint List, which received a huge vote of confidence from the Palestinian public, is one of the central architects of this legislation is unprecedented. Yes, their representatives were the reason that the Oslo Accords made it through the Knesset, but they were not involved in crafting the agreement — only responding to it. Now, however, they are among the decision-makers.
These developments, of course, are being driven by political arithmetic. The Joint List won two decisive extra seats this time around compared with the September 2019 elections, which has now given a majority to the “anti-Bibi camp” in the Knesset. Without them, Netanyahu would be assured the premiership while Blue and White would be stuck in the opposition.
Blue and White’s response to this outcome was to send an emissary, Ofer Shelah, to try and strike a deal with the Joint List. Meanwhile, Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman on Thursday announced his support for the proposed law, and according to party sources, is also set to announce his backing for Blue and White head Benny Gantz to form a government. Netanyahu, on the other hand, is attempting to erase the Joint List’s mandates altogether, while Miki Zohar is entertaining fantasies of stealing them for Likud’s benefit.
The events of the past few days are not just about politics, however. They reveal a deeper question about Israeli society, and about the State of Israel since its founding: are Palestinian citizens part of the Israeli political community — its “demos” — or is the Israeli polity made up only of one national group, Jews? Is Israel really an ethnocracy, an ethnically-Jewish regime, while Palestinians are simply excess baggage who have no place in the country’s politics?
Much has been written on these questions, but one fact is hard to dispute: with the exception of the Yitzhak Rabin government in 1992, Palestinian parties have never been part of the governing coalition. The depth of opposition to Palestinian presence in government is illustrated by the fact that Blue and White felt compelled to announce it would not rely on the Joint List, following Netanyahu’s succinct — and accurate — slogan about Gantz not being able to form a government without Ahmad Tibi.
The reaction to Monday’s exit polls also bore out this sentiment. Right-wing spokespersons immediately declared that “the people had spoken.” They meant, of course, Jewish voters; Palestinian citizens were not part of “the people.”
When it became clear to the right-wing parties that they did not have a majority, and that neither Blue and White nor Liberman had any intention of granting them one, this claim only intensified. At that Wednesday meeting, Shas head Aryeh Deri declared that “the people have clearly decided” in favor of the right; Yamina head Naftali Bennett added that “Blue and White are trying to poach a victory for the national camp from the Israeli people.” The face-off in their minds is clear: on one side, the people of Israel; on the other, everyone else, including Blue and White and the Palestinians.
But the Joint List’s remarkable achievement in these elections spells trouble for Blue and White, whether one sees them as Likud 2.0, or as a mixed bag of different stances toward the Palestinian public. The number of Palestinians who turned out will make it difficult for Blue and White not to see them as part of “the people.” And it is likely that the right’s attacks will force them to look at things differently: Ofer Shelah acknowledged on Thursday that his initiative with Tibi demonstrates there is “a majority in the new Knesset that is in favor of the State of Israel, and against the State of Netanyahu.” The Joint List, in this rendering, is part of “the State of Israel” — and therefore, part of “the people.”
It is too soon to say whether there is a way into the “demos” for Palestinian citizens. But alongside Shelah, who in September rejected having a minority government supported by the Joint List, stand numerous members of Blue and White, like Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who recoil at the idea of “the people” including Palestinians. There is nothing to discuss on this matter as regards Liberman. And as for the Joint List, there is no agreement over whether the Palestinian public even needs to be part of the Israeli “demos,” and under what conditions. Even on the right there has been no decision on how to address this challenge.
Working through this could be a dangerous process. Tibi knows that his grand political project, once he’s helped Blue and White and Liberman get rid of Netanyahu, could well end with them forming a government with the Likud and once again leaving the Palestinians out in the cold. This would be a more positive outcome — they could, too, present the Joint List as an illegitimate and subversive presence opposed to “the Jewish majority.” If the right continues with its line that “the Arabs and the left stole a victory for the people of Israel,” this chapter could also end in violence. Rabin, lest we forget, was assassinated as much because he brought Palestinian MKs into the government as because of the Oslo Accords.
Nonetheless, we are dealing with a different situation here. The Palestinian public’s newfound political clout, expressed through the Joint List’s success, is starting to change the rules of the game, perhaps faster than we can imagine. If the law that would bring down Netanyahu’s government passes with the votes of Blue and White and Liberman on the one hand, and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and the Joint List on the other, it could be the first step toward a new political horizon.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.