Winning the most votes in Israel’s latest election was a triumph for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party. But it wasn’t enough to end the yearlong standoff that has left Israel without a governing coalition. Parties that were opposed to Netanyahu’s continued tenure in office won 62 votes, while those favoring him got 58.
Netanyahu’s foes, including the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, have belatedly realized that although the prime minister remains the country’s most popular leader and heads the largest party, they have it within their power to potentially oust him by passing a law saying that anyone under indictment can’t be tasked with forming a new government. And that’s got Netanyahu’s followers crying foul about the possibility that the Joint Arab List, the coalition of anti-Zionist Arab parties that won 15 Knesset seats to the newly elected 23rd Knesset, could supply the votes that evict him from office.
While there’s no way of knowing whether this latest twist will lead to a new government or merely ensure a dreaded fourth election, a few points about the dispute need to be clarified.
Some foreign observers are flummoxed by the fact that the Jewish and Zionist parties continually assert that they will not sit in a coalition with the Joint List. Some on the far-left put this down to anti-Arab racism. But it is nothing of the kind. Those who merely see the Joint List as an ethnic party don’t understand its composition or its goals.
The Joint List is actually a coalition of four different parties.
The largest of the four is Hadash—the Israeli Communist Party. Its goals include not merely imposing a Stalinist economic system on Israel, but also the end of a Jewish state.
The other three factions share Hadash’s desire to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, though differing on other points.
The United Arab List is an Islamist party. It wants to replace Israel with an Islamic state along the lines of Hamas-run Gaza. Ta’al, a secular party, wants to replace Israel with a secular Arab state. The last is Balad, which is also secular, but wants to eliminate Israel and merge it with other neighboring countries in a pan-Arab mega state.
So for Zionist parties to say that they won’t sit in a government with the Joint List is not an expression of prejudice. They are making it clear that empowering those whose goal is not merely a different economic or foreign policy for Israel, but no State of Israel at all, is simply unimaginable.
It’s possible that Gantz could try and form a government without active participation by the Joint List but with its tacit cooperation. That would mean putting their government’s survival at the mercy of a group that doesn’t support the basic purpose of the state or its right to self-defense against terrorists who share the Joint List’s goals.
With both Lieberman and Moshe Ya’alon—a former Likud defense minister with strong right-wing views who is now part of Blue and White—claiming that they will now consider being part of such a government, it’s no longer an outlandish scenario.
If that happens, it will illustrate just how deep hatred for Netanyahu runs for some of his former associates. Those who will criticize Gantz’s potential coalition for putting itself at the mercy of the Joint List will be expressing reasonable concerns about endangering Israel, not racism.
However, in disparaging such a move, Netanyahu’s defenders need to be careful how they frame their arguments.
Israel’s status as the only true democracy in the Middle East is a major factor in its ability to rally support in the United States. Part of that means proudly proclaiming that all of its citizens—both Jews and non-Jews—have full rights under the law, including voting and serving in the Knesset and other government posts. As supporters of Israel come increasingly under attack from BDS supporters peddling the “apartheid state” smear, preserving Israeli democracy is essential to refuting those lies and preserving broad-based American support for the Jewish state.
It is one thing for Netanyahu to argue that he won the Zionist vote or a majority of seats in the Knesset held by supporters of Israel (i.e., not counting the Joint List’s 15 seats), and thereby is the only legitimate choice to be prime minister. It is quite another for some of his supporters to call for action, whether by loyalty oaths or other measures, that would effectively deprive the Joint List MKs—and by extension, the more than half-million voters who supported them at the polls—of their right to vote in the Knesset so as to prevent Netanyahu’s ouster.
Validating the “apartheid state” canard is just as dangerous as giving the Joint List a tacit role in Israel’s government.
Moreover, if a Joint List-supported government really is an existential threat to Israel, then perhaps Likud supporters should consider whether it’s worth risking it simply in order to keep Netanyahu as prime minister. Netanyahu is his country’s most effective statesman, and replacing him with a less experienced person is a risk. But a unity government of Zionist parties would be easily created if the prime minister stepped aside. Indeed, without Netanyahu, it’s also likely that the Likud could entice some of its former allies, like Ya’alon’s Telem faction within Blue and White or Lieberman’s party, back across the aisle to form a right-wing government.
There are no good or easy options left to resolve this standoff. But if Gantz makes a deal with the Joint List, such a government would likely soon collapse as a result of its internal contradictions. In the meantime, Netanyahu could concentrate on clearing his name in court and, if acquitted, probably sweep back to power in the next election.
Given his immense popularity among Likud voters, it isn’t likely that Netanyahu’s party will discard him. But is his continuation in office really worth undermining Israeli democracy or allowing a Joint List-backed government? That’s a question that both the prime minister and his loyalists need to think long and hard about.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.