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Arabs joining the election game: The good news of the political crisis

CM 22/04/2021

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 Like Morris and Ida Bober, the Depression-era grocers from Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant who spend their days waiting for customers that never come, Benjamin Netanyahu’s store has lost its clients, magnetism and cash.

Fire-sale concessions to Naftali Bennett – the defense and foreign portfolios to seven lawmakers – impressed no one. An impassioned televised call on Gideon Sa’ar “to return home and be greeted with open arms” elicited no response from Sa’ar, and laughter from everyone else. The quest to make Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir join an alliance with Arab politicians was met with even louder laughter.
Watching even these loyal customers depart, Netanyahu rushed to his storefront and glued to its window a poster that offered direct elections for the premiership. Pedestrians stopped for a second, scratched their heads and moved on.
Is it over, then? Is the worst political crisis in Israel’s history finally drawing to a close? You wish.
The anti-Bibi alternative is a rainbow coalition of perfect strangers and polar opposites, a confederation of political sheikhdoms with no natural leader, organizing principle or clear plan.
Worse, its opposition will be big, angry, solid and savvy, headed by the world’s most effective spin doctor, a defendant whose trial will lag for many months, during which he will continue agitating against Israel’s most hallowed institutions.
That, then, is why the Knesset’s dismissal of Netanyahu’s proposal for the new legislature’s Arrangements Committee, while apparently signaling his political decline, by no means signals the end of the crisis he has spawned.

The crisis has, however, already produced one winner and one gospel: The winner is Mansour Abbas, and the gospel is that Israel’s Arabs are finally joining its political game.
AN OBSERVANT Muslim and Hebrew University-trained dentist, the 46-year-old Abbas did this week what no Arab politician did in Israel’s 73 years: He mattered.
Arab politicians have been in the Knesset since its first day. However, they were all on the margins of the political process, sometimes because of the big parties’ design, but mostly because of their own choice. This syndrome began with Tawfik Toubi (1922-2011), who was a lawmaker for 41 years, during which he earned wide respect, but remained a political anecdote because he represented the communists.
The emergence during the 1990s of nationalist and Islamist parties changed little. Yes, two Arab-led parties backed the Rabin government, but they did not join the coalition and their focus was the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Lurking behind this attitude was an epic social tragedy. Muslim Arabs, one fifth of Israel’s population, are effectively disenfranchised, a self-inflicted malady that is their society’s predicament and its leaders’ shame.
Arab lawmakers’ failure to seek executive office deprived their community of its proper share in the national pie. The result is communal neglect on every possible sphere, from street safety and sewage treatment to building rights and schools’ gyms, libraries and labs.
This is what Mansour Abbas set out to change when he offered the Arab voter a communal agenda that would replace the nationalistic rhetoric that dominated Arab lawmakers’ political output.
Last month, in an emphatic statement of impatience with the previous formula, 40% of Arab voters opted for Abbas’s course. This new commitment, and the four Knesset seats it produced, made Abbas a political kingmaker. On Tuesday, Abbas activated his new power: Having obtained from Yair Lapid promises for a new parliamentary committee for the eradication of violence in Arab towns as well as a seat on the Finance Committee, Abbas voted against Netanyahu.
It will go down in history as the day Israel’s Arabs finally entered its political fray.
THIS IS not the first time a sidelined section of Israeli society has joined the furnace where Israeli government is smelted. It happened twice before.
It first happened in 1967, when Menachem Begin and his Gahal Party joined the Labor-led government during the days of awe that preceded the Six Day War.
Gahal’s junior partner, the Liberal Party, was a free-market movement whose earlier incarnations sat in David Ben-Gurion’s government. The senior partner, Begin’s Herut, never sat in any government, in line with Ben-Gurion’s dictum, “without Herut and the Communist Party.”
In other words, Begin’s voters were politically ostracized, until 1967, when they finally felt they belonged. It was a turning point in Israeli history, and a sign of Israel’s political maturation.
A decade later the same thing happened with ultra-Orthodoxy, when Begin became prime minister.
For the previous quarter-century the main ultra-Orthodox party of the era, Agudat Israel, stayed out of the government, ever since the 1951 legislation of women’s conscription.
Begin, who preferred the relatively weak ultra-Orthodox politicians over the centrist alternative of the day, Dash, convinced the rabbis to join his government in turn for unlimited military-service deferments, budgets for yeshivas, and the Knesset Finance Committee’s chairmanship.
Yes, as this column has been protesting for decades, the consequent relationship between ultra-Orthodoxy and the national budget is politically crooked and socially immoral. Even so, it made ultra-Orthodoxy part of the country, and that’s better than them watching from the sidelines how others run the land where they live.
Now the same thing is set to happen with Israel’s Arabs, only more intensely.
Unlike Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, Israeli Arabs have already produced thousands of doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, professors and contractors, including senior jurists like High Court Justice Khaled Kabub, senior bankers like Bank Leumi chairman Samer Haj Yihya, and senior physicians like Dr. Khetam Hussein, a mother of two who heads Rambam Hospital’s Coronavirus Department.
Behind these success stories sprawls a large population that wants normalcy, opportunity and coexistence. Whether or not Mansour Abbas will meet their expectations remains to be seen. They are, however, what he has come to represent, and the rest of us should salute.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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