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Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid Must Not Repeat Tzipi Livni’s Mistake

The former foreign minister could have saved Israel from a decade of Benjamin Netanyahu’s disastrous rule, but in 2008 she refused to lead a coalition supported by Israeli Arab parties and threw away her chance to lead the country.

Newly-allied Israeli centrist politicians Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R), as they deliver a joint statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21.
Newly-allied Israeli centrist politicians Benny Gantz (L) and Yair Lapid (R), as they deliver a joint statement in Tel Aviv on Feb. 21. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni withdrew her party from Israel’s parliamentary elections last month after polls showed her Hatnuah party was unlikely to even receive 3.25 percent of the electorate, the minimum needed to be elected to the Knesset. She is one of Israel’s most experienced politicians and arguably the person best qualified to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Livni is the Israeli politician most identified with seeking a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians, and she attributes this to her electoral failure. “In a way, I paid the price of speaking up clearly in a loud voice about the need to achieve peace, about the need to keep Israel as a democracy,” she told Foreign Policy recently.

But there is also an element of Greek tragedy to Livni’s failed political aspirations. Indeed, Livni could have been Israel’s prime minister a decade ago were it not for her fatal error of rejecting the legitimacy of Israel’s Arab citizens.  

In 2008, with the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Livni was tasked with forming a new government. At the time, her now-defunct Kadima party was the largest in the Knesset, with 29 seats. Agreements with her natural partners—the Labor Party (19 seats), the Pensioners’ Party (7 seats), and the left-wing Meretz party (5 seats)—gave her 60 seats, just short of the 61-seat minimum necessary to form a government in the 120-seat Parliament.

Livni could still have formed a government. At least one of the parties that represent Israel’s Arabs—20 percent of the population—would have supported Livni’s government from outside the coalition. But like many Israeli Jews, Livni viewed a government without a Jewish majority to be illegitimate. Rather than forming a partnership with Arab members of the Knesset, Livni decided to call early elections. She lost to Netanyahu, and he has been prime minister ever since.

So it is fair to argue Livni’s shortsightedness regarding Israel’s democracy doomed the country to a decade of Netanyahu, who today faces corruption investigations and another serious challenge, from Gen. Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid of the newly formed Blue and White party. But Gantz and Lapid would do well to learn a lesson from Livni’s 2008 failure.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence defines the country as a Jewish and democratic state. The electoral participation of Arab citizens highlights the tension between those two halves of the country’s identity. Arabs constitute one-fifth of the country’s population. They participate in parliamentary elections, both as voters and as candidates. (This is in contrast to Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who have no voting rights in Israel.)

Eighteen Arabs have served as members of the outgoing Knesset, most of them from the Joint List, an alliance of parties that represent the Arab public. (In shorthand, these are often referred to as Arab parties—a misnomer, as one of them, Hadash, is a joint Arab-Jewish party. They are also referred to as non-Zionist parties, though the ultra-Orthodox Jewish religious parties are also non-Zionist.)

But there is a clear glass ceiling to Arabs’ democratic participation: An Arab party has never been part of an Israeli government. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is the only Israeli politician to have challenged that glass ceiling.

In 1992, Rabin headed a coalition composed of the Labor Party, Meretz, and Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party. With Israel’s signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in September 1993, Shas left the coalition. The government was left with only 56 seats. Two parties that represented the Arab public, Hadash and Mada, agreed to support this minority government. Though they did not join the government, the parties reached an agreement with Rabin that as long as the government pursued peace with the Palestinians and advanced equality for Israel’s Arab citizens, they would vote against any no-confidence measures or other efforts of the right to bring down the government.

This agreement to serve as a so-called blocking coalition enabled Rabin’s government to stay in power for another two years (until Rabin’s assassination by a right-wing Jewish extremist in November 1995). During this time, the Israeli government undertook dramatic and far-reaching diplomatic measures: recognizing the PLO; signing the Oslo Accords, which included the creation of the Palestinian Authority; and granting the PA partial control and governing powers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As Ron Gerlitz, the Jewish co-director of Sikkuy, an Israeli organization promoting equal citizenship of Arabs, has argued: “Rabin was, therefore, the only prime minister to shatter the heretofore-undemocratic consensus that dictated the government ought to constitute a Jewish majority. Instead, his government was based on a majority of citizens, which included Arab citizens.”

This is not just a history lesson. The legitimacy of Israel’s Arab voters is still very much called into question—and may determine who forms the country’s next government. On election day 2015, Netanyahu posted an eleventh hour video warning that Arabs were coming to the polls “in droves.” This now infamous video is credited with propelling his Likud party to victory. In the current election campaign, Netanyahu is repeating this same racist playbook and even ramping up his rhetoric against Arabs’ political participation.

A central Likud talking point against Benny Gantz, the primary challenger to replace Netanyahu, is that he will form an alliance with the Arabs. Initially this was phrased in vague terms: Gantz, it was said, “doesn’t rule out sitting with Arabs in his government.”

Now Gantz’s party has merged with the party of Yair Lapid, and polls show this alliance constitutes a real challenge to Netanyahu’s rule. Fighting for his political life, Netanyahu has doubled down on the specter of a blocking coalition of Arab parties enabling his opponents to take power. In less than two months, Netanyahu warned ominously, Israel “could have a Lapid-Gantz government resting on Arab support.”

In the press conference just after Gantz and Lapid presented their alliance, Netanyahu called it “absurd” that relying on a blocking coalition by Arab members of the Knesset would be considered legitimate, since the Arab parties “not only don’t recognize Israel; they want to destroy Israel.”

This is pure demagoguery. No party can run for Knesset if it denies Israel’s Jewish or democratic character. Furthermore, upon taking office, every member swears an oath “to maintain allegiance to the State of Israel.”

The ramping up of rhetoric against Arab voters comes as Netanyahu has pulled out all the stops to ensure the election of the most extremist elements on the Israeli right, including a party linked to terrorism. Three far-right parties, each hovering below the electoral threshold, entered an agreement to run together. The Jewish Home-National Union-Jewish Power List includes advocates of forcible transfer of Israel’s Arab citizens, imposition of Jewish religious law in all matters, and conquest of territory from the Nile to the Euphrates.

The merger would not have happened were it not for the vigorous efforts of Netanyahu himself, who bullied and cajoled the parties, in order to avoid the loss of votes on the right. Netanyahu expressed no hesitation about ensuring the re-election of Jewish Home’s Bezalel Smotrich, who calls himself a “proud homophobe,” wants segregation between Jews and Arabs in Israel’s maternity wards, and advocates a shoot-to-kill policy for stone-throwing Palestinian children.

Nor did Netanyahu express any reservations about working toward the election of the disciples of the late Meir Kahane, extremists who align themselves with the Kach party, which was banned from running for Knesset in 1988 on the grounds that its ideology is racist and undemocratic.

Kach is also defined as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. Indeed, one of the group’s top candidates, Michael Ben-Yair, was denied entry to the United States in 2012 for ties to a terrorist group. Another high-ranked candidate, Itamar Ben Gvir, has a big picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish terrorist who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994.

When it appeared that egos and ideological differences might prevent the merger, Netanyahu promised this band of extremists two cabinet posts in exchange for joining forces. For Netanyahu, it seems, recognized terrorists are legitimate coalition partners—as long as they’re Jewish. Parties representing law-abiding Arab citizens, however, are beyond the pale.

It’s still unclear how Gantz and Lapid view the legitimacy of political partnership with Arab lawmakers. Yet if they are to have any hope of ousting Netanyahu, they will likely need to adopt Rabin’s successful model rather than repeat Livni’s error. By all accounts, this will be a tight race, and the center-left cannot afford to invalidate 20 percent of the electorate and throw away potential supporters because far-right fearmongers paint them as a threat. It is political suicide to let your opponents define which of your potential partners are legitimate.

The legitimacy of Arab voters is not just a tactical question of electoral math. It constitutes a principled statement about Israel’s democracy. In a democracy, every citizen has equal worth, everyone has the right to vote—and every vote counts.

Jessica Montell is the executive director of HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual. Twitter: @JessicaMontell

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