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- About the Authors
Israel’s Moment of Opportunity
Mark P. Barry
October 30, 2019
On October 23, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz was asked to form a government by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. This was after an initial failed effort at forming a governing coalition by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party, in the weeks prior. Gantz’s effort could take the form of a unity government as Rivlin recommends, a majority governing coalition, or even a minority government.
The formation of a new government is considerably complicated by the fact that Netanyahu is under the shadow of indictment on three charges by Israel's Attorney General, the most serious being that of bribery. These charges may be formally leveled as early as November. Up until very recently, Gantz has refused to join a unity government, in which Netanyahu would take turns serving as prime minister, when the latter could be indicted while in office. No Israeli law requires an indicted prime minister to step down.
However, beginning last Wednesday evening, Gantz surprised many observers by stating that indeed he is now willing to serve in a unity government with Netanyahu. However, he reportedly wants a written commitment from Netanyahu that if indicted, he will take a leave of absence as prime minister until the legal matters resulting from his indictment are resolved. This would allow Gantz to become prime minister much earlier, though Netanyahu would have had the first turn.
Moreover, much to many people's surprise, Gantz apparently has realized that he has arrived at a unique moment of opportunity in which he can portray himself before all Israeli citizens -- Jewish and Arab -- as someone trying to unite a society riven with divisions. Compared to Netanyahu's blatantly divisive efforts to create an “us vs. them” rift within Israeli political society, Gantz comprehends he must be the peacemaker and unifier at a moment in Israel's history when nothing less will do.
Upon receiving Rivlin's request to form a government, Gantz telephoned leaders of potential coalition partner parties that earned seats in the new Knesset in the September elections. This included the Joint List of four Arab parties, not only obvious partners on the left and right. Though this may seem a pro forma effort to reach out, Gantz evidences a political instinct that now is a moment in Israel’s history when he can achieve far more than at any time in the past.
Rather than form a government via expediency, backroom deal-making, and promises to specific parties that will only damage larger Israeli society in the long run, Gantz, at least in these early days of governing coalition formation efforts, realizes Israel is at a point where he potentially can make history. After over 70 years of the State of Israel's existence, now may well be the time for Israel to demonstrate itself as a society of the deepest virtues, which are of magnanimity, forgiveness and inclusion, based on the principle of humility.
It's widely assumed that Yisrael Beiteinu, the party led by Avigdor Lieberman with eight Knesset seats, is in the position of kingmaker. But Lieberman has been sly and careful not to ally with either Netanyahu or Gantz until either one cedes to his terms, which could adversely affect how Israel will treat its ultra-Orthodox in the years ahead. So while Gantz is trying to form a governing coalition in a viable manner, he also realizes that political decisions made today can have very undesirable consequences in the months and years ahead.
Although Gantz spent almost his entire career in the Israeli Defense Forces, most recently as Chief of Staff, there is a certain virtue to his being a political neophyte in Israeli politics. There is almost an innocence to his efforts, which comes across as genuineness and sincerity. His key support leadership in the Blue and White Party, all political pros with years of experience, have done their homework to warn or protect Gantz about the vicissitudes he may face in trying to form a governing coalition, particularly in warding off the many and veiled maneuvers that will come from Netanyahu.
But somehow, someway, the era of Netanyahu now seems to be slowly fading away, as Gantz’s efforts to form a government is the first time in over 10 years for someone other than Netanyahu to be able to do so. This is Gantz's moment of opportunity. If he fails within his 28-day allotted time period, any other Knesset member will have the opportunity to form a government in 21 days, but that is very unlikely to happen. If not, then by sometime in March, Israel will have to go to its third election within a year’s time, something unprecedented in Israeli history.
While Gantz certainly is prepared for the eventuality and unpredictable possibilities of a third election early next year, this four-week period for him is a priceless opportunity to show his commitment to Israelis -- regardless of party affiliation, Jew, Christian or Muslim -- that he wishes to be a leader who will represent all Israelis and focus on healing in a society being torn asunder.
Such a political stance is not easy to come by given Israel's origins in 1948 and its extremely divided political history. But perhaps Gantz somehow senses that the old ways of the past will longer suffice for the next 70 years of Israeli history.
Israel's future hinges on inclusion, cooperation, collaboration, and upon the respect and humility of each contingent of Israeli society accorded to all the others. In particular, this means the respect of secular Jews toward the ultra-Orthodox, the respect of Jewish Israelis towards their Arab citizens and towards the Palestinians residing under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
At the end of an era when so much trust had been placed in hands of the single strong leader, a hopeful future rests on the community leaders who can initiate local programs to support the deep changes that are required in society.
Most importantly, it means the men within Israeli society, especially in its leadership, inviting and cherishing the contribution of women to Israel’s civil society for the sake of its future.
No one can predict what may happen while Gantz attempts to form a governing coalition, or if Israel will indeed be compelled to go to a third election, but one thing is clear: Gantz may be the best qualified person to show the way towards Israel’s future, in which he tries to go beyond the political survival methodologies of the past and seeks to exemplify an inclusive and embracing political approach to governing Israeli society and relating to its neighbors.
We hope only good things will come out of the coming weeks of deliberations so that Israel may begin to build a better future based on principles of inclusion, humility and magnanimity. If it can do so, it may well set an example for other long-term global conflicts to follow, including on the Korean peninsula which also originates from 1948.
The Joint List Should Join the Government (cont.)
Beyond that, there is more talk among Palestinians and Israelis alike about a single-state future. What that state will look like—whether it continues to oppress Palestinians or forms an inclusive democratic structure—will be greatly affected by the stance of Israeli Arabs toward the government of Israel. Active involvement of Israeli Arabs in governing Israel will set a precedent for cooperative relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the future, whether in one state or in two states. This may seem like a long shot, but one thing’s for sure: continued hostility and suspicion between the two sides will only prolong and even worsen the oppressive status quo.
In addition to political courage, I believe another element that the Joint List will require is forgiveness. As I Jew, I ask on behalf of Jews everywhere, for forgiveness for the misdeeds that Jews have done to Arabs through history. That’s not to say that there have not also been numerous misdeeds that Arabs have perpetrated on Jews, but from the Jewish side it has been a history of expulsions, from the Nakba in 1948 all the way back to the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by our matriarch Sarah. I believe that many Jewish Israelis, especially on the Left, want to relate with their Arab brothers and sisters as equal citizens of Israel. Maybe it is not yet a majority, but nevertheless there is a willingness, even a yearning in Israel, to move beyond the sorrows generated by the politics of fear that is often rooted in a misplaced sense of superiority.
I know that Arabs still feel the hurt from those expulsions. What I call forgiveness is a willingness to put aside the past in favor of a shared future. It doesn’t mean to forget the past or sweep it under the rug, any more than Jews will ever forget the Holocaust. Still remembering, we can nevertheless move on from that pain and grasp a shared future. I want to see an Israel where Arabs and Jews share the future together. It begins with an Israeli government that includes the Joint List.