Why did everyone act as if it were a foregone conclusion that Benjamin Netanyahu would serve as Israel’s next prime minister? Why did Moshe Kahlon declare for Netanyahu without seriously considering the alternative? The election results were clear: leaving kingmaker Kahlon and his new Kulanu party out of it, the coalition of the Center-Right, Right and religious parties had 57 seats to the Center-Left, Left and Joint Arab List’s 53. Theoretically, Kahlon could have gotten pretty much anything he wanted from either side.
But I am sure you are already rolling your eyes, thinking, only an idiot or a sucker would contemplate a coalition in which a predominantly non-Zionist, if not anti-Zionist Joint List would serve in a government dominated by a party called the Zionist Union, not to mention a former Likudnik.
Indeed, all three parties are opposed to such a coalition.
I wonder, however, if you would also consider the founders of the Jewish state idiots and suckers. That generation experienced every bit as much of the violence and implacable Palestinian Arab enmity as have the current generation of Israelis. Still, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, that founding document appealed “to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to...participate in the upbuilding of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its...institutions.”
The proclamation also declared that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace...; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.”
To be sure, as with America’s Declaration and its affirmation that all men are created equal, Israel’s lofty goals for itself have had a slow, uneasy and nonlinear path to describing a glass more half-full than half-empty.
But how is it that the values of Israel’s Declaration have come to be seen as only the values of its most liberal citizens and of those who negate the very Zionism the Declaration embodies? Building a pluralistic democracy is absolutely essential to the success of the Zionist endeavor. If a Jewish democracy is to survive in the Middle East, it will have to be one based on the realities of a multicultural society of Jews from all over the world, thousands of foreign workers who may or may not be “immigrants,” and a large (20%+) Arab minority. Israel’s founders well understood the need for not only tolerance for ethnic and racial differences but an enthusiastic embrace of diversity. Israel was designed by its founders so that the ideals of pluralism would be so woven into the fabric of the nation as to be a part of its common civilization, applying to all citizens of the state.
What prevents Moshe Kahlon, and Isaac Herzog for that matter, from realizing this, from seeing that the most progressive path forward may be the only path forward? Presumably, the issue for them as well as for Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, and the vast majority of that List, was and is the fundamental question of the Zionist identity or lack thereof of the incoming Arab members of Knesset.
Good news for all with such concerns.
The Jewish Question, and its descendant, the question of Zionism, were answered in 1948. The State of Israel is a fact. This is good news for Odeh, as well, in terms of his being able to be comfortable being part of a historic government coalition. When challenged on his Zionist credentials, when asked if he is a Zionist, this is how he should respond: “Am I a Zionist, a Jewish nationalist? Well, I am an Arab whose family is from Palestine, so I suppose not in a historical sense. But I am a loyal citizen of the State of Israel, with a strong allegiance to the high principles upon which the state was founded. I am somewhat akin to the one third of American citizens who did not support the American Revolution in 1776 but who rolled with the punches and became loyal Americans once that conflict was over. It is true that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not over, but that is why I am joining this government. No longer will I be calling for an end to the occupation, I will be helping to achieve that goal.”
Odeh has spoken of the “need to extend bridges to the Jewish community.”
If he is truly interested in helping to construct a fully pluralistic democracy, if he wants to be a force for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and achieve a coexistence that is both peaceful and just, he will push the Joint List to change its position with respect to joining a coalition and playing a pivotal role in making lives better for those who live in Israel and for those in the would-be Palestinian state next door.
Conceivably, he could get at least 11 of the Joint List’s 13 MKs to take this leap of faith into a more constructive future with him and that would be enough for a majority government.
Why was it a given since election night that Kahlon could not have taken this step? He has expressed a willingness to trade territory for peace. His economic ambitions for the benefit of all Israelis would certainly be better served by improving Israel’s international standing and moving toward some kind of Israeli- Palestinian rapprochement. Even in declaring for Netanyahu, Kahlon stressed that Kulanu was “socially oriented” and covered the gamut of where Israelis reside, pointedly skipping the settlements.
“The people decided they wanted Netanyahu to form the next government,” Kahlon declared. Except that is not exactly what happened, given Israel’s electoral system. The people decided on a divided government and that is why his 10 seats could have put either side’s government into power were it not for the issue of having an Arab party as part of a coalition.
That is why Tzipi Livni’s Kadima out-polled Netanyahu’s Likud in 2009 but still could not form the government.
For Isaac Herzog, this Copernican re-orientation of Israeli political thinking should be even easier. After all, his is the party behind the aforementioned high ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. He should not let those maxims be reduced to platitudes devoid of practical content.
Aren’t those in the peace camp tired of blaming Netanyahu and the Right? The election results were there – are still there – for the taking.
In contradistinction to the axiom that it had to be a conservative like Richard Nixon who first went to communist China, it is this unprecedented coalition, the first Israeli government in which Israel’s Arab minority would have “due representation,” that is best suited to achieve a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The weight of Israeli history – a century of survival amid enduring conflict – as well as the plight of the Palestinian people and the hopes for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians rests not with Netanyahu and his 30 seats, but with Herzog, Kahlon and Ayman Odeh, and their 47 seats.
Yesh Atid and Meretz would be right behind... and there would be the road to peace.
These three men should have given peace a chance. And until he actually signs a coalition agreement, Kahlon still can. Will one of these three pick up the phone and call the others? Given the Israeli electorate no government could truly “unite the people” as Kahlon endorsed. Making Israel’s Declaration of Independence a reality, however, will build a more united Israel in the long run.The author teaches the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as well as American Multiculturalism at DePaul University in Chicago.