Governing After War – The Case of Israel

Part II: The New Priorities

There is and ought to be a new emphasis on domestic Palestinian relations in Israel while the prospect of peace with the Palestinians not living in Israel is bracketed. This new emphasis should go along with two others:

1. new initiatives on secular-religious relations;

2. a renewed emphasis on Israeli Jewish-Diaspora relations (not dealt with in this blog).

But the most important switch entails taking advantage of the new opening in changing the relations between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

It has been said that the support of Mansour Abbas, a 47-year-old dentist in private civilian life, and his four party members from the United Arab List for the Israeli government is not unprecedented. After all, in 1992 when Yitzhak Rabin’s Labour Party rule was about to collapse, Arab Party support for the government saved that government in 1993. However, while it is true that Rabin was the first Israeli government to rely on Arab Party support to remain in office, and while that situation has not been repeated since, the situation is not the same as the current support of Mansour Abbas’ United Arab List support for the imminent new government in Israel.

In 1992, Rabin took power with a majority of 9 seats:

Labour       46

Meretz        12

Hadash        3

Mada            2

Shas            6

Total           69

This was a substantial majority. The problem came in 1993 when Shas withdrew its support in September after Rabin signed the Oslo Agreement. The government survived because the joint coalition of Labour and Meretz had 58 seats, but a majority support in the Knesset because the two Arab parties, Hadash and Mada, would not support a no-confidence motion which meant that the most support for defeating the government could be 57 seats. Rabin had a de facto majority of one, though he did not have a majority of Knesset seats in his coalition.

The difference between then and the current situation of the prospective coalition of eight parties is not only that the coalition includes left, centre and right-wing parties, but one Arab party as well, Ra’am. Most importantly, unlike 1993 when Arab support came from outside the government, Arab support from the United Arab List is an integral part of the government agreement. Arabs for the first time, as parties as distinct from Arab individuals, are part of the government. The other Arab Party, the Arab Joint List with six seats, is outside the government, but two of the six have informally agreed not to vote non-confidence in the government so the new Bennett government will be faced with only 57 non-confidence votes. Yamina MK, Amichai Chikli, announced that he will not support the incoming government, but it is not clear whether he would support a no-confidence motion. On the other hand, of the three parties that make up the Arab Joint List – Hadash, Balad and Taal – there is the possibility Ahmed Tibi would also lead his two seats to join the coalition.

The major and unprecedented breakthrough is that an Arab partly is part of the coalition. As a senior figure in Ra’am opined: “The responses to the move are positive and give us credit, but this is the first step in a long journey to changing the reality that excludes us from the circle of influence.” Fauzi Abu Toama, an activist non-party Arab Israeli from the town of Baqa al-Gharbiya, opined on the same line: “This is a historic moment since the founding of the state in the government’s relations with Arab citizens. The success of this move could be a significant turning point for the future and status of Arab citizens and their integration in the circle of decision-makers.” 

Mansour Abbas’s party did not, however, get any ministries as did the other parties. But in return for its participation, Ra’am did receive the following concessions:

  • Abbas was a signatory to the coalition agreement. (Contrast this with Benny Gantz’s secret deal on behalf of the Blue and White Party with the Joint List – there is no written documentation of that agreement available.)
  • Abbas will attend in the future, and he did attend the meeting of all eight parties in the new coalition on 6 June at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv.
  • Ra’am will chair the Knesset Interior Committee
  • Mansour Abbas will be a Deputy Interior Minister. (Naftali Bennett, in addition to being Prime Minister over the next two years, will also be Interior Minister.)
  • The status of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev region will be regularized.
  • There will be no home demolitions in the next four years and the 2019 Kaminitz law banning illegal construction will be annulled.
  • The budget would include $1.6 billion for infrastructure projects in Arab towns and cities and for crime prevention.

Most importantly, an Arab – from a village, no less, the mixed Druze, Muslim and Christian village of Maghar near the Sea of Galilee of Galilee – played a key role in putting an end to Netanyahu’s vigilante treatment of Arab citizens of Israel.  

All of the above are historic breakthroughs. The precedents set are of historic significance, a fact recognized by all. As Meretz Chairman, Nitzan Horowitz, tweeted, “Change is on the way.”  The the inclusion of Arab citizens of Israel in the decision-making and power centre of the country is unprecedented. These changes are important in giving a lie to the accusation that Israel is an apartheid state. In South Africa, apartheid is an Afrikaans word that means “separateness”, or “the state of being apart”. There is a fundamental difference between legally being forced to live apart and choosing to live apart. These moves are of absolute historic significance for Israel because they demonstrate the intention of inclusion of Palestinian Israeli citizens who constitute 21% of the population as an integral part of governing the state. Even more significantly, it was the current Prime Minister and soon to be leader of the opposition who initiated the move to make Ra’am part of the government. The revolutionary step has broad-based support in spite of the loudness of some critical vocal critics.

These initiatives are very important in tackling the recent outburst of Arab-Jewish violence, particularly in mixed Israeli-Jewish towns and cities. Arab rioting within Israel is not unprecedented, in spite of propaganda to the contrary. When Rabin promised to break bones in the first intifada, he was referring to violent protests not only in the occupied territories, but in Israel proper where some Arab protests against the government turned violent. The difference in 2021 is that the rioting was not simply against government policies; there was civil society mob violence against civilians. They were pogroms rather than protests. Further, there were Jewish mobs persecuting Arabs as well as Arabs attacking Jews.

A number of Jews have been subsequently indicted for a violent mob attack on an Arab driver in Bat Yam and six others in the Said Moussa assault. In Nazareth, Israeli police allegedly beat Arab detainees after their arrest and then denied them medical treatment. The current government has focused its primary attention on Arab-against-Jew violence. The security cabinet authorized deploying border police to mixed cities and towns for the ensuing three months “for the good of safeguarding the public order”. Shin Bet in an extraordinary move announced that, in light of the escalation, the agency would deploy Shin Bet officers to serve alongside Israeli police inside the cities to stop the violence between Arabs and Jews.

The goal of the police campaign is “to restore deterrence and increase governance in designated places in the State of Israel, along with maintaining the personal security of Israeli citizens.” But why the almost exclusive focus on Arab areas? Palestinians are Israeli citizens as well. Protests by Palestinian citizens were met both with police violence and vigilante attacks by Jewish extremists. 2,248 have been arrested with the vast majority of them Palestinian Israelis. An estimated 200 have been Jewish. 

The reality is that in some cases, rioting was instigated by the arrival into an Arab area of Jewish fascists. Thus, in Hof Hagali (Upper Nazareth), Mayor Ronen ordered that barriers be erected at the entrance to the city to prevent entry of Jewish troublemakers from outside. Several busloads of Jewish extremists were turned back. There were no riots there. Systematic preventive action in advance in the deployment of police and municipal workers prevented any clashes. Similarly, after the fact, in Lod Abbas met with the family of Hassouna who had been killed. He then visited the site of one of the three synagogues that had been torched by rioters.

The other area in which revolutionary new initiatives can be expected is in the sphere of secular-religious relations. It has to be emphasized that secular and religious are not two different groups. The vast majority of Israelis, both Jewish and Muslim, are different admixtures of Western enlightenment values and traditional religious practices and beliefs, unlike North America where the numbers in each camp are developing in self-enclosed silos. Though the coalition agreement provides for no new initiatives in controversial secular-religious disputes, there are other areas in which innovation can be expected.

The easiest is perhaps the resurrection of the agreement on the Kotel, the Western Wall, in which different sections of the wall will be reserved for male-only worship while another section will allow for mixed groups of male and female to worship. On the other hand, there will be no introduction of civil marriage in Israel. Since Haredi parties are not part of the coalition agreement, why is this the case? It is because Ra’am is an Islamic party opposed to non-religious sanctioning of marriage and, in the coalition agreement, it was agreed that there would be no initiative taken to change the status quo.

However, the area where major changes can be expected is in Haredi education. Avigdor Liberman has perhaps been the most outspoken critic on the leniency towards the Haredi population with respect to an absence of any requirements for a core curriculum in secular subjects. There are some Haredi schools where no secular subjects are taught at all, at least in the Israeli schools, not the ones in America. There are others in which secular subjects are taught but the core secular curriculum is not supervised or legitimized by the government. Liberman if he were Education Minister vowed to change that. As Finance Minister, he perhaps has even more clout to ensure that Haredi education educates the children so that they can become economic contributing members of a modern society. In that effort, ironically, he will be supported by many young Haredi who have been critical of their own leadership for its failures in this area (as well as others).

There is a link between the issues of belief in religious-secular relations and the disbelief that burst out over the tension and violence between Palestinian and Jewish citizens. Both issues are ultimately more critical than what happened in Gaza even though those riots in Lod, Acre and Jaffa relatively involved minimal absolute numbers. For both issues are mainly about civil society. The primary emphasis of government must be the protection and development of civil society and not foreign affairs. At this time when progress on peace with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank offers virtually no openings, activist efforts can best focus energy on reinforcing the developments of a democratic society, most importantly, on expanding opportunities for full membership for those Palestinians and those ultra-Orthodox Jews who remain uncommitted to the Israeli project.

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