Fool me once: Did the Joint List make a mistake backing Benny Gantz?

In the face of a global health disaster and a constitutional crisis in Israel, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz shattered a year’s worth of commitment to voters on Thursday by agreeing to enter a “national emergency government” led by Israel’s very, very long-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The details of the government are not yet final, but the decision shook Israel like an earthquake. It generated political chaos among Gantz’s supporters, and sliced his party in half.

Gantz’s faction, Israeli Resilience, will join a Likud-led government along with Netanyahu’s loyalist bloc, including Shas, Yemina and Torah Judaism. The two remaining Blue and White factions — Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Telem, established by Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon ahead of the April 2019 elections — will join the opposition. Blue and White thus became the first casualty of the new government, and ceased to exist.

Some are already saying that the Joint List, an amalgam of Arab-Palestinian-majority parties, is the second casualty. Breaking decades of tradition, party leader Ayman Odeh recommended that Gantz be tapped to lead the next government twice, only to have Gantz deliver Israel back into the hands of Netanyahu. Hadn’t the Joint List been played for a fool?

It’s a fair question. Odeh first recommended Gantz after the September 2019 elections, and their two parties even held pre-coalition talks. But Gantz failed to form a government, and Odeh came to distrust his motives. In January, Odeh told Haaretz that Gantz had probably used him to help oust Netanyahu, but would eventually form a unity government with Likud. Odeh felt he had been treated “like a mistress.”

Still, after the March election — the third in a span of a year — the opposition parties won a majority of the vote, and real change finally appeared within reach. Despite deep internal discord on the issue, including pre-election threats of withholding such a recommendation, Joint List leaders decided to give Blue and White another chance. The move even aligned the Joint List with its nemesis, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Liberman, to unify behind the recommendation for Gantz.

The Joint List had won 15 seats in March — its best showing ever. This time, even Balad, a constituent faction that withheld its support following the September election, joined the effort to oust Netanyahu. These were groundbreaking steps for the Arab leadership in Israel, which has long expressed ambivalence about supporting Israel’s executive power, given policies toward Palestinian citizens, and the greater context of Israel’s ongoing occupation, along with the greater Arab-Israeli conflicts of the past.

Members of the Joint List arrive for a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The best possible payoff for the Joint List, and all the opposition parties, would have been for Gantz to form a minority government that would put an end to Netanyahu’s rule. It was never likely that Blue and White would invite the Joint List to be a coalition partner — no independent Arab party has ever entered a governing coalition in Israel. But the Joint List could have supported a vote of confidence for the minority government without joining. Israeli society would have witnessed how the Arab-Palestinian citizens played a key role in a long-awaited transfer of power. The scenario would have been ground-breaking.

Gantz crushed those hopes; but the Joint List did not make a mistake.

The Joint List cannot measure its success or failure based on the composition of the next government. Its significance lies in the greater historic journey of Israeli society.

Coalition politics in Israel are a short-term story of political intrigue and short-lived governments. Like most centrist parties in Israel, Blue and White was destined to die anyway after a few electoral cycles. Gantz didn’t just break a coalition promise by agreeing to serve under Netanyahu — he broke the party’s purpose. Hence its immediate demise.

The Joint List is on a different path altogether. Palestinian citizens of Israel are on a journey, and the party’s actions have jump-started the next leg of the trip; renewed political engagement is the fuel for the future. When the Joint List was founded in 2015, it re-energized Arab voter participation, after nearly 15 years of significantly lower turnout than Jewish citizens. Arab-Palestinian citizens had grown weary of small, powerless parties, and were relieved by the formation of this political alliance in the face of an increasingly racist onslaught from far-right nationalist governments.

Already then, enthusiastic voters raised turnout, earning the united slate 13 seats instead of 10 for the separate parties of the previous term. Political wrangling pulled them apart in the April 2019 elections, turnout sank, but then rebounded in September, when the Arab-Palestinian parties of Israel reunited, pushing Arab turnout to the highest point since 1999, 65 percent.

Next, under Odeh’s leadership, the party articulated a destination. His vision was grounded in the idea of Jewish-Arab partnership; social solidarity in general; and a rejection of racist, nationalist politics. Earlier generations of Arab parties were more committed to asserting the Arab-Palestinian identity and rights — marking them as “sectoral” parties. But the idea of broader citizen equality and partnership clearly tapped into the sentiments of Arab-Palestinian citizens.

Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, and Ahmad Tibi (left to right) join hands at the announcement of the return of the Joint List. (Photo courtesy of the Joint List)

In our +972 Magazine survey in April 2019, Palestinian citizens supported civic partnership between Jews and Arabs at very high rates, and fully 87 percent of Arab respondents believed an Arab party should join the governing coalition outright. The Joint List’s actions, pitching in to the communal effort to oust the far-right governments, is in lockstep with these citizens’ integrationist sentiments. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, 87 percent of Arab voters in March voted for the Joint List as opposed to other parties – another historic high.

Further, the Joint List influence goes well beyond the Arab-Palestinian population, to mainstream Jewish and Zionist parties in Israel where its impact has been powerful, maybe irreversible. A year ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that Netanyahu’s former defense minister, the hard-right-wing Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, would be one of two Blue and White figures most committed to avoiding a Netanyahu unity government, which meant that by default they preferred a minority government to be established with Joint List votes. A survey I conducted for the civil society group “The Democratic Voice” found that a majority of Blue and White supporters — no less than 81 percent — supported this option as well.

Jewish citizens can no longer dismiss the Joint List, or Arab-Palestinian citizens in general, as agents who help shape Israel’s executive power. They will begin to normalize the idea that an Arab party will join such a government, which, I’ve argued, should have happened years ago.

Some Jewish Israelis view the political future differently already: by most analyses, Jewish votes for Joint List as much as doubled from the earlier rounds. Anecdotally, many of these Jews told me they had never voted for an Arab-Jewish or Palestinian party in Israel before. For them, the Joint List was no longer sectorial, but represented solidarity and partnership they seek for Israel in the future.

In recent years, the Jewish Israeli left has increasingly turned its attention to cultivating Jewish-Arab civil and political partnership within Israel. New Jewish-Arab movements have sprung up. Meron Rapoport analyzed the reasons in-depth here. Perhaps these efforts are filling a void left by the defunct peace process with the Palestinians. Perhaps they have concluded that Jewish-Arab partnership can eventually advance equality and self-determination for Palestinians under occupation as well.

The Joint List’s vision and political decisions stood for both. The party is paving a new road, one where the journey of Palestinian and Jewish citizens may one day converge.

Disclosure: I conducted research for the Joint List campaign ahead of the March 2020 election.



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