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talking politics

The political black hole

It seems the recent “intifada of knives” has been the opening volley of the next election campaign. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s Knesset speech, in which every sentence was preceded with the words “when I am prime minister,” left no room for doubt. He promised a firm hand against the rebellious Palestinians, and slammed Netanyahu repeatedly for his refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians which, he said, was leading to the creation of “Israstine.” Herzog smells blood, and he pounces feebly on the prey. He has declared unequivocally that he will not join a unity government, and during a recent special Knesset session held for Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day, he threw down the gauntlet: for the first time: he reminded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the “balcony on Zion Square” from which, shortly before the assassination, Netanyahu had addressed an approving crowd that was waving posters of Rabin in SS garb.

A government with just 61 Knesset members (out of 120) is very vulnerable, and the power of the recent events, which have greatly increased the public’s fear, provide the opportunity for a frontal attack on the government. Netanyahu is also vulnerable: the new wave of violence has thrown doubt on his policy towards the occupation. This policy holds that the situation is unsolvable and in fact need not be solved, yet what we’ve seen in recent weeks is just a taste of what we are liable to see if the conflict continues. The murderous lynching of an Eritrean asylum seeker in Beer Sheva by a Jewish mob that mistook him for a terrorist, the attack on Bedouin citizens of Israel in Dimona by a Jewish citizen, the stabbing of a Jewish Israeli near Haifa because “he looked like an Arab,” and the mutual distrust between the two populations – all this is making life in Israel chaotic.

The recent events have filled Herzog’s sails. It appears that the Labor Party, which he leads, has recovered from the period of powerlessness that followed Rabin’s assassination, during which it tried to reach a reconciliation with the settlers instead of confronting the right wing. Now it seems the party is no longer willing to ignore Netanyahu’s role in the incitement against Rabin, and for the first time since the assassination, Herzog is using the severe biblical phrase, “Have you killed and also taken possession?” The challenge to Netanyahu is intended to bring the Labor Party closer to power after 15 long years of a right-wing government – a government which has caused the collapse of the Labor Party and has led to the ostracism of Israel.

Meanwhile Netanyahu is writhing like a wounded animal and seeks any way out of the political mess he’s in. He has approached the Americans, spoken with the Jordanian king, and called on Herzog to join a “national emergency” government. In his distress, he has even tried to get himself invited for a speech to the Center for American Progress, a think tank close to the Democratic Party, when he visits Washington at the White House’s invitation. But it seems the whole world has changed. The Democrats remember very well how Netanyahu affronted Obama by his speech before Congress and his incitement against Arab citizens of Israel during the last elections. Friendly Arab states are also sick of his provocations on Al-Aqsa, and Herzog refuses to take the rap for him.

But there’s a fly in the ointment: Herzog has no partners among the Arab citizens of Israel, and without Arab votes he cannot win. Labor's years of appeasing the right wing and even participating in the previous Netanyahu government have engendered the feeling among Arab Knesset members that they are not wanted as partners. Even at a time when the Joint Arab List contains 14 Knesset members, Herzog is still not interested. To get to the coveted prime ministerial seat, he has to break sharply rightwards, since his natural partners in any future government – the Haredim, Moshe Kahalon’s Kulanu party, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – are all to his right. But as he moves rightwards, so does the Joint Arab List, as reflected in its support of Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement. The List has also taken up the sheikh’s fanatical religious agenda with the battle-cry, “Al-Aqsa is in danger!”

The behaviour of the Arab MKs borders on irresponsibility to their public. They fail to differentiate between the just struggle against the occupation and the extreme religious aims of the Northern Branch, which are contrary to democracy and tolerance. Apart from deepening the hatred and suspicion between Jews and Arabs, the Islamic Movement also harms Arab society because it promotes an atmosphere of seclusion, religious terror and violence against women. It also harms Arab intellectuals and drives away those who aspire to a modern, secular society. Because of narrow electoral considerations, the secular parties – Tagammush (Nationalists) and Hadash (Communists) – are dragged after the Islamic Movement and the propaganda spread by Al-Jazeera, just as Herzog’s rightward shift stems from the need to garner votes.

Now, when the Labor Party talks about separation walls and a peace conference including the Arab states as an alternative to direct talks with the Palestinians; when the term “dismantling the settlements” has disappeared from political discourse; when it mouths off about “united” Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; then there is no realistic chance of solving the conflict. Like Netanyahu, Herzog proposes managing the conflict, not solving it, only he wants to do it more shrewdly: with US-European support as well as the participation of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. Herzog aims for endless negotiations under Arab and international patronage, a policy that is bound to fail as it did with past Labor government. This strategy plays straight into the hands of the right wing, who continue the mantra “There is no partner for peace” while striving for a creeping annexation of Greater Israel.

Sadly, the Joint Arab List’s ranting, while backing the Islamic Movement's Northern Branch, has made it ineffectual. During the last elections, the Arab voters’ demand from their representatives was clear: they wanted a large Arab bloc that would address their day-to-day needs instead of waving empty nationalistic slogans. Arab voters asked these representatives to use the mandate they were granted to improve their social and economic conditions without ignoring the need to end the occupation. But in reality, voters got the opposite: slogans and demonstrations whose theme is religious after the fashion of ISIS. Instead of a rational, civil democratic discourse, the program of the Islamic caliphate has raised its head as an alternative to an independent, democratic Palestinian state.

When Herzog makes eyes at the Jewish right wing, and the Joint Arab List tries to attract the Arab right wing, a political black hole opens between them. It swallows all Jews and Arabs who seek to put an end to the occupation, refuse to take part in the religious war, and aspire to an egalitarian democratic society. Herzog’s future partnership with Lapid and the Haredim will not lead to the kind of civil and political revolution which is needed to put an end to the occupation and vanquish the right wing. Likewise, the partnership between Balad, Hadash, and the Islamic Movement does nothing for the Arab citizens of Israel. It prevents an effective struggle against the Israeli right wing and renders impossible any Jewish-Arab cooperation.

During recent stormy demonstrations, when the streets were awash with ranting and incitement, some Arab intellectuals took a clear stand against the path chosen by the Joint Arab List. They rejected all cooperation with the Islamic Movement and criticized the way the List was being dragged after the slogan “Al-Aqsa is in danger”. The same people raised their voices when Islamic sheikhs prevented a women’s marathon from being held in Tira, stopped a theatre production or forbade the teaching of certain books which were not in keeping with their extreme religious worldviews. Even though these intellectuals are a minority at present, they are consistent voices that understand the dangers of fundamentalist Islam – the Islam now bringing about the collapse of Iraq, Syria and Yemen – and they refuse to have anything to do with it.

In Jewish society too there are many who are sick of the Labor Party and the corrupt political establishment as a whole, which brings nothing but intifadas and war, proposing no alternative. The Israeli “peace camp” and the Joint Arab List are leading us into a dead end. This highlights the need to establish a new democratic Jewish-Arab movement as an alternative to the messianism and nationalism that dominate both sides of the political map. Instead of a gaping black hole we need a political magnet to draw all the sane democratic voices, both Jewish and Arab, that are sick of the racist slogan “Us here and them there.” These voices seek an end to prettified apartheid. They yearn for a normal, equal life of partnership.

  • Translated by Yonatan Preminger
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