Politics in Israel has been dominated by Zionist parties which do not differ fundamentally on the imperatives of nationalism, but only in the degrees of conservatism, stridency and expression of the same.
The two million-odd Arab citizens of Israel (who prefer to be called Palestinian Arabs), and representing over 20 per cent of the population, have remained in the periphery of electoral relevance in Israel. The second national elections this year has yet again ensured an inconclusive verdict. This has yielded a rare opportunity to the Arab-dominated political parties to assert themselves under the coalition banner of Joint List. Besides securing an overwhelming 82 per cent of the total Arab votes that were cast, the Joint List has emerged as the third biggest group in the House with 13 seats. The other two leading groups, Blue and White coalition and the Likud are struggling to stitch together a majority in the 120- member Knesset (parliament). The initial fears of a potential voter fatigue in the second round of the elections turned out to be ill-founded (after the inconclusive first round in April), as the overall electoral participation went up from 68.5 per cent in April to 70 per cent in September.
To a very large extent, the ascendancy of Arab-centricity in these elections owes its genesis to the increasingly polarising, inflammatory and uber-muscular politics of Benjamin Netanyahu. While the decline of Arab-sensitivities has been institutionalised given the right-wing moorings of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the wounded societal reality in Israel , the attempt to win a record sixth term as the Prime Minister prompted Netanyahu to assume extremist positions, ably assisted by Donald Trump. In the US President, the Israeli Prime Minister had an ideological-journeyman who too had exploited his brand of ‘politics of fear’ to successfully divide-and-succeed in the election. In order to up the ante, Netanyahu had provocatively reneged on his conditional support to the ‘two-state’ solution by stating that such a state, ‘will not be created, not like the one people are talking about. It won’t happen’. As opposed to rebuking Netanyahu for disavowing the only hope of peace via the ‘two-state’ formula, Trump egged him further by recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy, sanctified Israeli sovereignty over occupied Golan Heights and harangued Iran incessantly, for supposedly fomenting trouble in the region. Trump’s barely concealed his partisan support for Netanyahu’s campaign by publicly supporting one of his signature policies. He tweeted that it would ‘further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries’. But the electorate was perhaps jaded and unconvinced with the unnecessary theatrics, bluster and intimidation of the proverbial ‘other’, that it sent an unmistakable and unprecedented message in the final verdict.
Netanyahu had stooped too low by brazenly warning Arabs in the run-up campaign., ‘Arabs want to annihilate us all ~ women, children, men’. Not only did it provoke the usually disinterested Arab electorate into voting in large numbers against Netanyahu, but more pertinently, the voting pattern of the Israeli Jews had a more prescient, deeper and unprecedented message of having been frustrated with the ‘politics of hate’.
At the other end of the spectrum was another Zionist and fellow-military man, Benjamin (Benny) Gantz, a former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, who led the tally table with his Blue and White platform. Benny Gantz was able to blunt the ‘military hero’ image of Netanyahu with his own track record that was embellished with multiple operational heroics. More importantly, the commonality of background allowed him to pitch his politics without seeming to compromise on Israeli security or future. In the scale of relative stridency, Benny Gantz had distanced himself from the extremely provocative positions posited by the Netanyahu dispensation, and still secured more votes. He had sought a more reconciliatory approach vis-à-vis the Palestinian future, which included possible territorial concessions as long as they did not compromise with Israeli security. He sidestepped the ‘two-state’ option without ruling it out.
He had rejected a controversial Netanyahu sponsored bill that envisaged filming the Arab dominated polling booths and denouncing the decision to bar US Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting Israel.
Benny Gantz had struck a balance between retaining his Zionist-patriotic credentials without spewing venom and indulging in reckless warmongering, thereby carving a possible space for inclusivity, rapprochement and moderation.
The Arab parties have also braved a controversial option of backing Benny Gantz in the Prime Ministerial stakes, a move that was last done for the previous Prime Minister (also a senior military commander) Yitzhak Rabin, who too had held out the olive branch. This had eventually resulted in the Oslo Accord with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader, Yasser Arafat in 1993. After 25 years of such a thaw, the Arab parties have taken a calculated step to again bank on Benny Gantz. The electoral numbers are still neckand-neck and Netanyahu has not thrown in the towel as yet, given the number of cases pertaining to corruption, bribery, fraud and breach of trust against him.
Netanyahu as the interim Prime Minister will go to any extent to retain power and avoid conviction. However the political template of overplaying the ‘security’ hand and indulging in unwarranted ‘politics of hate’ may just be losing its political currency and steam. Benny Gantz is a decorated 3-star General who has now successfully countered political extremism with relative moderation. This green shoot of political evolution augurs well for the region and beyond, that has seen an unending cycle of violence and bloodshed that no amount of military boots-on-the ground could counter seven decades of insurgency.
Benny Gantz is an anti-thesis of Netanyahu, in that he is reticent, nuanced and a possible alternative to the Zionist formulation that could still be acceptable to all stakeholders in ushering in the much needed calm as political muscularity by itself, gradually wanes.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry