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Netanyahu’s divisive policies unite his foes, for now

Mar 10,2020 - Last updated at Mar 10,2020

It is all about the numbers as rivals and allies in the Israeli political landscape make last minute attempts to clear the finishing line by reaching the magic number of 61 seats or more in the 120-seat Knesset. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to celebrate what he called the biggest victory of his career as soon as exit polls predicted that his Likud and right-wing parties secured 58 seats in last Monday’s elections. But a week later, his chances of forming a government for the fifth time seem less likely. His trial for corruption, bribery and breach of public trust starts on 17 March.

Meanwhile, his main rival, Benny Gantz, who heads a centre-left coalition, is close to forming a government after securing the backing of leftist Labour-Gesher-Meretz alliance and bowing to the conditions set by kingmaker Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman. With the outside backing of the Arab Joint List, which won 15 seats making it the third largest party, Gantz is now set to head the next government.

All of these parties have one thing in common despite ideological differences: To bring down a divisive and corrupt Netanyahu. But Israeli politics is unpredictable and one cannot discount last minute surprises. Turnout in this third election within a year was high, over 65 per cent, especially among Israeli Arabs. Their vote was instrumental in limiting Netanyahu’s gains. Indeed, they are now the centrist bloc that is also appealing to a growing number of Israeli voters who are fed up with the far right’s monopoly and its divisive agenda. On his part, Netanyahu’s bid to attract deserters from the Blue and White coalition did not work. His coalition’s gains stopped at 58 seats.

Gantz’ coalition of Blue and White did poorer than expected, mainly because of its leader’s inability to draw the lines between his agenda and that of the Likud, despite his effort to position his coalition as a centre-left bloc. He desperately needed the support of Lieberman, who had rejected joining an alliance with Gantz following last September’s elections. Now with much at stake, no one is in the mood for a fourth election. The impasse had to end.

The fact that an alliance, albeit a loose one, is forming between Israel’s Zionist centre left and Israel’s largely non-Zionist Arabs, is amazing in itself. Ironically, in his final act as a politician, Netanyahu was able to unite his foes and empower the Arabs against his own wishes.

Gantz and his new allies vowed to pass a law that would prevent an indicted politician from forming a government. That law targets Netanyahu, who, despite getting a major boost from Donald Trump, was unable to secure victory. In fact, it is believed that Trump’s peace plan was responsible for the high Arab voter turnout, which in the end denied Netanyahu the premiership. One segment of the plan suggested transferring more than 300,000 Israeli Arabs living in the so-called triangle to the new Palestinian state. Ironically, that suggestion is believed to have been Netanyahu’s idea.

If Gantz is able to form a new government, with the backing from the outside of the Arab Joint List, then he has to differentiate himself from the divisive and racist discourse of the Netanyahu far right bloc. His position on Trump’s peace plan must be clear: That negotiation with the Palestinians is the only way forward. He had hinted, following the unveiling of Trump’s peace plan, that he would not take any unilateral move without consulting with Jordan and the Palestinians. That was a reference to the annexation of the Jordan Valley, which would kill the two-state solution and threatens Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan.

Unless he reverses or halts the Netanyahu policies of the last decade or so — expanding settlements and refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians — nothing will change on the ground and Israel will find itself facing a new reality, that of a divided single state ruling over the Palestinians under an apartheid regime.

But let us not delude ourselves into believing that Gantz is another Yitzhak Rabin. He is not, and one should take his possible overtures to the Palestinians with a pinch of salt. In fact, his minority government may fall apart as soon as Netanyahu is ousted forever. For now, Netanyahu is the glue that holds this unpredictable alliance.

On his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must be ready to engage with Gantz in a bid to revive the stalled peace process and deflect attention from Trump’s peace plan. He must present fresh ideas to counter Trump’s proposals. He would be wise to learn from Israel’s Arabs and move quickly to reconcile differences with Hamas in Gaza. The latter has failed to honour commitments under a number of understandings reached with Fateh in the past through various mediations. The timing for the Palestinians and their cause has never been more crucial.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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