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Israel elections: Jewish-Arab partnership needed for left-wing alternative

A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on 9 April 2019 [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]
A man casts his vote during the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on 9 April 2019 [Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency]

The Israeli national elections are set for Tuesday 17 September as a rerun of April's polls which left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhu unable to form the 21st Knesset. Incumbent Netanyahu's Likud party was up against retired Israeli Defense Force General Benny Gantz's Blue and White alliance, tied with 35 seats each in the last election.

In a pre-election campaign scramble, Netanyahu has been adhering to the right-wing and ultra-orthodox camps of Israeli society with his aggression toward neighbouring countries and renewed calls for annexing  illegal West Bank settlements.

Meanwhile, Benny Gantz's "center-left" Blue and White coalition campaign focuses primarily on simply beating Netanyahu. Gantz launched his campaign earlier this year boasting the claim that he bombed parts of Gaza "back to the stone age".

As the Israeli political scene pushes society further and further to the right, where does that leave the left-wing parties? To many left-wing Israelis, Blue and White is not a true alternative to Netanyahu's Likud government.

READ: Ayelet Shaked warns religious Zionists to get out and vote

"The Blue and White says more or less the same things about the political situation with the slight exception of them being against annexation," Nimrod Flaschenberg, a Jewish-leftist activist and campaign manager for the socialist Hadash party, explained. "But in practice, they wish to preserve the status quo and also to impose a neoliberal economic model."

Blue and White, or Kahol Lavan in Hebrew, is a coalition between the Yesh Atid, Hosen L'Yisrael and Telem parties, with ex-military generals and former staff members to Netanyahu's government as its leaders – a fact that does not sit well with both the Arab and left-wing voting blocs.

'The elephant in the room'

The Labor party and the new Democratic Camp are more "left" than Blue and White, but their uncompromising Zionist nature leaves leftists uneasy.

"In my opinion, you cannot call yourself left and a Zionist," said Aida Touma-Suleiman, number two on the Hadash list for the Knesset and in fifth place on the Arab party coalition the Joint List.

"The only representatives of the real left here are led by Palestinian-Israelis," Flaschenberg said.

READ: Ahmed Tibi names conditions to form 'blocking majority' with Gantz

As a Jewish-leftist, Flaschenberg's central goal is to challenge the mainstream liberal Zionist opinion. "Are you willing to let go of your nationalist inner identity and to allow an Arab to be your leader?" he questioned hypothetically.

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"And that's a very challenging question for many Jews," he added.

"The elephant in the room is Zionism as it is practiced today," Ameer Fahkoury, head of the School for Peace Research Centre at Wahat Al-Salam-Neve Shalom, told MEMO. "The liberal camp among the Israeli Jews and the Arab parties cannot agree on the nature of the state."

READ: Netanyahu's Elections Gamble Will be Costly for Israel 

Zionism is the biggest obstacle for a coalition among left-wing parties, according to Fahkoury, and the most obvious reason why the left has failed. "The Zionist right has managed to consolidate its alliance with the ultra-orthodox while the left did not manage to do a parallel alliance with the Arab-Palestinians," Fahkoury explained.

"Without such an alliance, there is a consistent asymmetry of power."

Need for Jewish-Arab left coalition

This deadlock over the "nature of the state" is detrimental to a successful left-wing opposition in Israel, but this also contributes to the delegitimisation of the Arab-Palestinian citizenry and their political participation.

Since the Nation-State Law passed last year, many believe that Palestinians in Israel effectively became second class citizens as the law states, "the right to exercise national self-determination" in Israel is "unique to the Jewish people." Palestinian law makers also believe it further weakened their political power.

"The left-wing parties are not ready to work with us," Tousa-Souleiman said. "The centre-left is afraid of the potential power of the Arab voting bloc," she continued, noting that the Joint List is the third largest party in the Knesset, after Blue and White and the Likud, and that Palestinian citizens of Israel make up 20 per cent of residents.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh last month announced that he "doesn't reject joining" a government coalition with Blue and White, on the condition that Palestinians in Israel are no longer second class citizens.

Ayman Odeh (R) member of the Knesset and head of the Joint List

Ayman Odeh, member of the Knesset

"Many Arab-Palestinians see the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rans very low on the agenda even of the central left," Fahkoury described. "They see them as a lesser evil because the right-wing in Israel is speaking out loud about annexation.

"They rationalise allying with them on the basis of pragmatism and this is what we have to work with."

Moshe Ya'alon, a former defense minister and number three in the Blue and White, responded to Odeh, stating: "I don't object to having an Arab minister, but he would have to accept that the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state."

READ: Netanyahu is risking war to boost his electoral prospects

A stronger coalition between the Jewish left and Arab parties would spell out greater justice for Palestinians, but also for Jewish-Israelis who want to live in a peaceful democracy. "The idea of peace and of ending the occupation is missing from the Israeli political discourse," said Flaschenberg. "I think Bibi [Netanyahu] has been very successful in one thing, which is making the Israelis forget that there are Palestinians. Making them forget that there is a conflict."

"It is impossible to really create a left-wing alternative without joining forces between Jews and Arabs," Flaschenberg believes.

"Now the ball is in the field of the Kahol Lavan [Blue and White]," as the Joint List expressed interest in cooperation, says Fahkoury. The Zionist- or central-left and the Arab parties must, "agree to put this disagreement [over the nature of the state] aside and try to progress in issues that we agree upon."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

ArticleIsraelIsraeli ElectionsMiddle EastOpinionPalestine
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