Let me take you back a year, to April 2020, a month after last year’s Knesset election, when Benny Gantz gave up on the chance of forming an Arab-backed government and joined forces with Benjamin Netanyahu. Not many know this, but Gantz had made a promise to the 15 MKs of the Joint List who supported him that he would appoint an Arab minister in the new government he would form with Netanyahu. It was an important and meaningful commitment. Fast forward one month – the Netanyahu and Gantz government was sworn in with 36 ministers (an all-time record). None of them were Arab.
Obviously, that wasn’t the only promise Gantz broke, but this one’s worth examining. Many in the Left still don’t understand how Mansour Abbas and his breakaway list won four seats in the March 2021 Knesset election. The answer lies in what Abbas said in a pre-election interview, that their disillusion came from the disappointment from Gantz. It wasn’t that Gantz chose to join forces with Netanyahu – that much was predictable, he says – but rather breaking all promises made to the Arab public.
According to Abbas, the Joint List was promised in 2020 that in return for its recommendation to the president that Gantz be given a mandate to form a government, the agreements between the two sides would be fulfilled – even in the case of a government with Netanyahu, which was eventually formed. What exactly did Gantz promise? To address violence in the Arab sector, boost employment, housing, changing the Nation State Law and so on.
AND YES, appointing an Arab minister. None of these promises were upheld and so the Arab public figured they should look for opportunities elsewhere, even in the Right. Gantz’s election slogan was “there’s no more Right or Left.” The Arabs at least, were convinced.
This was a watershed moment: with unprecedented unity, the Arab public had backed the Joint List’s 15 MKs last year in supporting a Center-Left Zionist prime ministerial candidate. But just a year later, in the most recent Knesset election, there was a major decline, as only 10 mandates were won in the Arab sector, and this time split between two hostile lists – one, headed by Abbas, cutting deals with Netanyahu, and one refusing to join the game at all.
Even the best scenario won’t lead to a Center-Left government this time, or to a Left-leaning policy shift. But there is hope for one in the future. The numbers are there – Gantz had 62 mandates a year ago, sans Bennett and Sa’ar. Such a reality is possible with one stipulation – it requires a true political alliance with the representatives of the Arab public, similar to the political ultra-Orthodox-Right bloc.
This is our only foreseeable horizon as a political camp – both in numbers and in principle. An alliance isn’t built in a day, it takes time and trust. The Center-Left parties are in a position to negotiate their way to the government while sending a message to the Arab public: “You do matter.”
It is right to assume that both Abbas’s United Arab List (Ra’am) and the Joint List will refrain from joining a Bennett coalition, possibly abstaining at best. What will they agree to? Well, appointing an Arab minister is only a symbolic first step. There are many things Meretz, Labor and even Yesh Atid can and should do for the Arabs starting today. They should take a page from Netanyahu’s playbook who, in recent days, used his political power to form an “Arab Affairs” committee, one of only three committees set up so far in the new Knesset.
The lack in understating the importance of a political alliance of the Jewish Left and the Arab public was evident during the past week as well. Riots in Jerusalem where “death to Arabs” was chanted by the mob, or MK Bezalel Smotrich saying “Arabs are Israeli citizens, for now…”, were left almost unanswered. Those incidents should have brought a powerful and clear reaction from the democratic camp, and yet it remained relatively silent. These were the moments for leaders of Meretz, Labor and Yesh Atid to stand up for their Arab political allies. It shouldn’t be hard for a politician to do the right thing when it happens to also be the smart thing.
While the Left is thinking about negotiations, another Netanyahu government can be formed at any moment. If that will happen, either he will return the favor for Abbas’s support, bringing Jewish conservatives and Muslims closer together, or he can toss them aside again. The latter would be another slap in the face of the Arab public – that no matter which way they sway, they remain powerless.
What’s more, there’s a chance we will have a fifth round of elections in the summer, and in that case, the Center-Left will again need the Arab vote. Netanyahu is only two Knesset seats away from an all-Right coalition. Low voter turnout for the Arabs – and he could go over the line in the next election.
When we go out to the polls again, be it in 2021 or 2025, the Center-Left will still need to face the Arab public and convince them to vote and to give them their support. There is no better time than today to show them – this time we won’t let you down.
The writer is an Israeli social activist and the founder of Have You Seen the Horizon Lately, an Israeli NGO that promotes Jewish-Arab political partnership.