Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author of the 2018 book, “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.”
The fall was inevitable. The wildly diverse and unwieldly government headed by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had just marked its first anniversary when yet another coalition member defected to the opposition, depriving Mr. Bennett of his fragile parliamentary majority. It was only a matter of time before he conceded failure and summoned new elections – the country’s fifth in less than four years.
And yet, when the announcement came on Monday, many who saw this coalition as Israel’s best hope went into mourning. Not only because we are about to lose our most daring experiment in political diversity, a coalition that united parties from right to left and included, for the first time in Israel’s history, a party representing Arab citizens. Even worse is the terrifying alternative: an anti-democratic coalition of ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, headed by former prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and which, according to polls, is close to winning a parliamentary majority.
This government’s historic achievement was creating Israel’s first Arab-Jewish coalition. Until the Bennett government, it was axiomatic that Arab parties would never join a coalition and Jewish parties would never admit them. Decades of war between Israel and much of the Arab world created deep distrust between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Arab politicians refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, while Jewish politicians questioned the loyalty of Arab Knesset members, some of whom have supported Palestinian terror attacks.
The mutual taboo was broken by the least likely candidate for the role of national healer: Mansour Abbas, whose Islamist party, Ra’am, has roots in the radical Muslim Brotherhood. Thanks to Ra’am’s presence at the table, the government had begun to redress long-neglected needs in the Arab community, from boosting education and infrastructure to combatting violent crime.
In furthering equality for Arab citizens, the government embraced Israel’s two foundational identities, as a Jewish and a democratic state. As a Jewish state, Israel preserves its ancient culture while offering safe haven to any Jew in need. As a democratic state, Israel belongs to all of its citizens, Arabs and Jews alike. Without either commitment, Israel would betray its essence.
Mr. Abbas broke one further taboo: He became the first head of an Arab party to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Israel, he declared, was founded as a Jewish state and would remain so. Mr. Abbas proved that, when Jews truly own the country’s democratic identity and treat Arabs as equal players, an opening is created for acceptance of Israel’s Jewish identity.
Yet that delicate process is precisely what Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition is intent on undoing. A glimpse into the alternative reality Mr. Netanyahu is planning was offered by Likud Knesset member Miki Zohar: “The people of Israel need to decide who will run this country, Mansour Abbas and the Islamic Movement or Jewish citizens who sacrificed their blood to create this country.”
Mr. Netanyahu, currently on trial for three corruption charges, has declared war against the courts, the police, the media and internal “enemies,” especially Arab citizens. Breaking precedent on the mainstream right, which always shunned racist parties, he has embraced the far-right party Religious Zionism, which includes a leader who has supported terror attacks against Palestinians.
This government of moderation and compromise was born out of necessity: to bring stability to the political system and prevent the return to power of Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s most divisive leader. But its deeper mission has been to affirm Israel’s dual identity as a Jewish and democratic state.
Despite relentless pressure of terrorism and war, while absorbing mass immigration from countries with little democratic tradition, Israeli democracy has endured. For all of Israel’s challenges, especially balancing security needs with the moral imperative to end the occupation of the Palestinian people, an independent court and free press have thrived.
But with the coming election, Israeli democracy is facing its most critical test. A victory for the Netanyahu coalition would empower forces that despise democratic norms and minority rights, and that have vowed to politicize the courts, granting the Knesset authority to appoint Supreme Court justices. Even as the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state is under growing attack by anti-Israel groups around the world, its legitimacy as a democratic state is under growing attack from within.
Maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic commitments is essential to the country’s being. Whether we are still capable of holding that delicate balance is the issue Israelis will be deciding in the coming election.
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