The scene in the Knesset plenary on Monday was surreal. First there was MK Benny Gantz sitting in his seat alone in the room. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walked in, and the two waited on their own for the president and Knesset speaker to enter to begin the process of inaugurating two to three Knesset members at a time in adherence of the corona virus regulations.
Gantz and Netanyahu not only said “hello,” but actually talked.
This surprised many Israelis, who have heard the mudslinging of Israeli politics. On the one hand a majority of Israelis want a unity government but on the other hand they cannot imagine two candidates who just spent three campaigns viciously attacking one another getting along, and even working together. And with news of progress in negotiations toward a unity government in the midst of continued bickering and accusations from all sides, Israelis are even more perplexed.
Those on the right ask: how can Netanyahu possibly be talking in a friendly manner and consider a unity government with Gantz, whom he painted as a mentally ill, dangerous left-winger who seeks to partner with supporters of terrorism? And how can Gantz forgive Netanyahu for all that?
Israelis on the center-left wonder: how can Gantz engage in small talk with Netanyahu after describing him as corrupt, self-centered, and dangerous for Israel? How can he even consider joining such a person in a unity government? And how can Netanyahu forgive Gantz for all that?
If the negotiators manage to succeed in the very necessary step of forming a wide unity government ranging from Labor/Meretz to Yamina, Israeli citizens will have to adjust within weeks and prepare to see MK’s Itzik Shmuli sitting in government consultations alongside Rafi Peretz; Ofer Shelach working with Naftali Bennet; Miki Haimovich at the cabinet meeting with Miri Regev.
Believe it or not, Knesset members and ministers will have no problem with this arrangement – this is standard operating procedure in the building. My first day on the job, Dov Henin from the Hadash party came over to introduce himself. “We are the only two bears in this forest,” he smiled at me, playing on the translation of our names, “so we have to be friends.” I remember thinking: “Friends? This guy is an atheist and a socialist who works in consonance with some of the radical Arab parties. And he wants to be friends?” I quickly learned that this is how it works inside Israel’s parliament – people from opposing political camps can be best of friends – and Dov and I did become good friends. I disagreed with almost all his political positions, but came to really appreciate him as a person, as well as from the initiatives on which we worked together, especially environmental issues.
When Minister Uri Orbach tragically passed away during the 19th Knesset, he had his immediate family with him together with his best friend, MK Ilan Gilon. Uri was a member of the right wing/religious Jewish Home party. Ilan represented the left wing/secular Meretz party. Polar opposites politically. And yet, they were best of friends.
Netanyahu and Gantz, who have a history of working together – even directing a war together – will have no problem “laying down their arms” and cooperating to lead the country together in this historic crisis.
Now it is up to us, as citizens, to learn to be comfortable with this arrangement. We have to prepare ourselves to accept the legitimacy of leaders with whom we disagree politically and think of as the worst of the worst.
And even more importantly, we need to make peace with friends, neighbors, family members and our online foes with whom we have been fighting for the past year. We must learn that it’s okay to disagree, that debate is a good thing, but not to allow it to become personal.
We still don’t know how the political stalemate will be resolved. But we as citizens must begin the process of learning how to disagree agreeably.
Perhaps our doing so will set the tone for our leaders to drop the politics and work together during this challenging crisis, and then a unity government can lead the way to a more unified country.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset