The Israeli right’s support for a unity government with the center-left bloc is, on the face of it, a puzzle. A potential governing coalition containing Likud and Blue and White would seem to be more in the interest of the latter than the former.
Such a government could halt the politicization of the Supreme Court in Israel, undo attempts to annex occupied Palestinian territories, challenge the legislation of “loyalty” laws, and stop religious laws altogether. It could interrupt the legislative frenzy that the right and religious parties have spearheaded since 2015, and lead to better environmental, social and liberal legislation.
For right-wing leaders, a unity government might seem to seal their loss in the September election. Most of the policies they helped promote would end, and candidates representing the settler far-right would have to accept minor offices or remain outside the government entirely.
In such a government, the ultra-Orthodox parties wouldn’t be able to deliver on their campaign promises of gender segregation and ending public transportation on the Sabbath. The secular majority in the Knesset could make regulations for civil marriage, and possibly undo the ultra-Orthodox monopoly on religion in the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was charged with bribery, fraud and breach in late November, wouldn’t be able to secure immunity and might even have to resign. Policies regarding Palestinians could be decided by those outside the settler enterprise.
Even though the center-left bloc has much to gain, while the right has more to lose, the heads of the right-wing parties are doing all they can to form a unity government. In speeches, interviews and press releases they describe it as the need of the hour, the people’s will, the reasonable and right thing to do. Netanyahu even agreed to be a member of such a government under the leadership of the head of the Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, merely five months after its establishment.
But is this really the voters’ will? Do Netanyahu’s supporters, who were promised a narrow right-wing government under his leadership, want unity with Gantz? Are Blue and White voters, who came together to oust Netanyahu, interested in unity with his Likud party? Of course not.
The need for a unity government arose to find a compromise between the different political demands of Israeli voters who cast their ballots as much to vote out the rival camp as to vote for the party they support. A unity government allows its members to satisfy voters while not asking them for more than they can bear.
Netanyahu will not quit in silence
We can stop perpetuating the lie that a unity government will satisfy a majority of voters and acknowledge that such a government will just about enable the representatives of those voters to tell their supporters, “It could have been worse, much worse, but we showed leadership and prevented a disaster. Compromises are painful in the face of existential threats.”
But what is that disaster? What’s the worst that can happen to these right-wing leaders if a unity government isn’t formed? What terrible threat are these leaders attempting to escape when aiming for a government with their political rivals in Blue and White?
Here, one must make a distinction between Netanyahu and the rest of the right-wing leaders. Netanyahu will personally benefit from a unity government. Those who think he is nearing the end of his political career are optimistic. They’re convinced that things will work out, that it could not get any worse from here. But optimism, in many ways, is the weapon of the oppressor. Netanyahu needs to stay in power to avoid jail time, and every day he serves as prime minister, despite the corruption charges against him, is a victory for him.
Thoughts of “there’s no way a prime minister can serve under indictment” are replaced with “there’s no way he can get himself immunity,” and “there’s no way he will go on trial while holding the premiership,” then “it’s impossible he will appoint an advocate general or counsel” and similar prophecies that Netanyahu’s rivals convince themselves of. But so far, none of these predictions have come true. And the next time Netanyahu secures himself a government that provides him with immunity, he will come to it stronger and more aggressive, as he has time and again since first assuming office.
No legal or ethical obstacle will stand in the way of the man who views himself, as do his spokespeople in the party, as Israel’s one true savior. For Netanyahu, serving as prime minister in a unity government with his political rivals, while under indictment, is all it would take to destroy them completely and earn back the trust that he has started to lose among the right. What he seeks from such a government is to come out as the elected prime minister. More than that, the mudslinging will also surge: while his clear disadvantage in the April and September elections was his faith that he will come out as the obvious the victor, leading to indifference, now he begins as the underdog.
Netanyahu will not quit in silence. On the one hand, he has the settler lobby, which demands annexation, more funds for the settlement project and building permits; and on the other, the ultra-Orthodox, who need a narrow right-wing government to be able to implement their campaign pledges: exemption from conscription, more welfare investment, funds for yeshivas, bolstering ultra-Orthodox education, destroying liberalizing trends in religious communities, and stopping laws pertaining to freedom of religion.
Another election cycle will require a lot of effort from Netanyahu, but victory is not impossible: in April, a mere 1,400 votes to the New Right party separated him from a narrow right-wing government.
A real possibility for Jewish-Arab partnership
Netanyahu aside, why would the rest of the right-wing leaders support a unity government that includes those seeking the political demise of the right’s ultimate leader? One could analyze each of their personal interests and their political strategy vis-à-vis Netanyahu, their past traumas and day-after-tomorrow fantasies. These reasons are all important, but they do not reveal everything. The heads of the right-wing camp are willing to relinquish their monopoly on right-wing legislation since 2015 and accept unity because of another fear materializing before their eyes — one that would shake the foundation they’ve established.
As far as Israel’s right is concerned, the “demon” — the urgent concern they will present to their voters — is this: the now very real possibility that the country will be led by a Jewish-Arab partnership. Such cooperation can begin with limited support from the Joint List, the majority-Palestinian party, and continue with an agreement on base lines, then manifest in achievements on the ground, and so on. This is the very development that would collapse the right’s empowerment in Israel.
Such a partnership signals a new political agenda: it undoes the segregation and animosity between Jews and Palestinians. It brings light after many years of political darkness that resulted in poor Jews, occupied Palestinians and fearful ultra-Orthodox, mediated by those seeking conflict and oppression. Jewish-Arab partnership is the highlight of the September elections, and it’s what’s preoccupying right-wing leaders now.
The daily war against such partnership is in full swing. It’s taking place on billboards with Arabic letters removed, in hospital departments, in student groups, in colleges and universities, in acceptance committees and cultural events, and in the enactment of the Jewish Nation-State Law.
For right-wing parties, there is a direct link between the cycles of violence in Gaza, the settler enterprise, and quashing any hope for peace; and between supporting authoritarian leaders around the world and the racial segregation against Palestinians here. A Jews-only politics is one in which the right always wins. Striving for a unity government — even at the expense of stopping annexation and laws on religion and “loyalty” — is worth it for the right, even if just to slide the possibility of Jewish-Arab partnership off the table.
A Jewish-Arab partnership, which is a central value to the Israeli left, is also its path to victory. A win that isn’t Jewish-Arab, even if it comes in the shape of a unity government headed by the seemingly liberal Blue and White and the Likud’s moderates, even if it halts anti-democratic and religious legislation, even if it includes social-democratic gains for Jewish citizens only, is a victory for the right. It reaffirms the age-old political agenda that separates Jews and Arabs, and which always comes out in favor of segregationists and those promoting discrimination and hatred.
Jewish-Arab partnership is a necessary step toward victory — even if it causes losses on the way.
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.