Bibi's defeat gives liberals much to cheer for
It’s not often that you see Israeli peace activists and Leftists cheer the success of a far-Right settler leader. But this is exactly what happened last night. The animosity towards ”Bibi” Netanyahu has reached such fervour that it has brought together parties from Right, Left and Centre together with a small Arab Islamist party. Politicians united by nothing more than a desire to unseat the Prime Minister seem to have succeeded in their primary goal.
Bibi’s reactions on the other hand have been wild, from threatening to bomb Iran to calling the proposed government a danger to the Israeli army. It reminds me of the final words of Saddam Hussein: ”Palestine is Arab”! Sure, but no one asked you about Palestine — the question was whether you are a mass murdering dictator. In Bibi’s case the question is not Iran or the armed forces, but whether he himself is a danger to democracy.
The labyrinthine process of coalition-building in Israel is hard to understand, but perhaps never more so than in the past 24 hours. Last night, an hour before the deadline for forming a government was set to expire, Yair Lapid, the centre-Left leader of the second largest party after Netanyahu’s Likud, submitted a deal to form a government to outgoing president Reuben Rivlin. The deal stipulates that the premiership will be shared by Lapid and Naftali Bennett, the Right-wing leader who wants to annex the whole of the West Bank and who will serve the first two years as PM.
Obviously this is a brittle, perhaps unsustainable, combination and may even fall apart before the votes are cast in a few days time. Netanyahu has been targeting Bennett’s MKs (Members of the Knesset) with a campaign claiming that they are leading a ”government of the Left” and if he succeeds in this he will bring down the proposed government before it even starts. This strategy brought the first round of negotiations to an end when the Gaza war made it impossible for Bennett’s party to ignore Netanyahu’s line of argument: sitting in a government with Palestinian Islamists while fighting other Palestinian Islamists in Gaza was not a good look. But this time, the government is on the verge of forming after a second round of negotiations.
If the government holds and the Right-wing parties stick with it, there are indeed a few things that the Israeli Left can celebrate. The first is that democracy will have succeeded in replacing Netanyahu, which, whatever your views, is a sign of a functional system: Bibi stands accused of petty corruption and meddling with the media, and his divide-and-conquer tactics against his political enemies have led many Israelis to fear for Israeli democracy itself. The second is that although Bennett will be PM, he understands that his mandate does not include some of his more extreme dreams of annexation, so although we can expect a stalemate in the peace negotiations, this government is unlikely to completely kill the idea of a two-state solution. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, for the first time in Israel’s history we will have an Arab party in a government coalition, a move towards inclusion of the more than two million Arab citizens of Israel. With all this in mind, we can perhaps cautiously say that this is a good day for liberals and friends of democracy in Israel.
Tobias Gisle is a Swedish-born writer based in Tel Aviv and writes for Times of Israel and Fokus