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Israel heading for unity government, author predicts

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

LAWRENCE – After the Sept. 17 do-over election, Israel is likely to have its first “unity” government in 30 years, according to the author of a new book on Arab electoral politics in the Jewish state.

And while four Arab parties have once again formed a Joint List that is likely to increase their standing in parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to be able to form a completely right-wing majority coalition, as he has in the past. Thus, he will be forced to ask the centrist Blue & White Party of former army general Benny Gantz to join him in a so-called unity government.

This is the prediction of Rami Zeedan, assistant professor of Jewish studies at the University of Kansas. He spent the summer in his native land, researching a forthcoming book on the history of Arabs in the Israel Defense Forces, of which he is a veteran. He is a member of Israel’s Druze minority, a religious sect that is an offshoot of Islam and whose adherents identify most strongly as Israeli and not Palestinian.

Zeedan is the author of a new book “Arab-Palestinian Society in the Israeli Political System: Integration vs. Segregation in the Twenty-First Century” (Lexington Books, 2019). It is a political history of Arabs in Israel and the contradictions that bring up in a state that defines itself as both Jewish and democratic.

Zeedan notes in his book that the formation in 2015 of the Joint List of Arab parties (Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and United Arab List) increased the number of total Arab seats in the 120-member Knesset from their previous high of 11 to 13. When the List fractured before the inconclusive April elections, the parties’ total seats dropped to nine. Zeedan said public polling results and his own research this summer leads him to believe the Arab vote will be back up, and the Joint List will rebound to roughly 11 seats in September.

Coalition politics have always been fractious in Israel, which has many parties that come and go and change their names on a regular basis. Netanyahu leads the Likud Party, Israel’s original right-wingers, while the state’s original left-wingers, the Labor Party, have been fading in recent years and are now surpassed by Blue & White as the second most popular party.

“When you look at the policy and agenda of the two leading parties in terms of international relations and their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is not much difference between them,” Zeedan said. “And this says something about the diminishing left. The big party on the center-left actually has similar positions to the one on the right. So one could ask, ‘What's the difference? Why are people choosing Blue & White?’ Blue & White is getting so much support because of their fight against Netanyahu on his corruption cases. They are saying, ‘We are not corrupt.’ That’s it.”

Zeedan said Netanyahu is smartly playing his cards before the next election. Before submitting the lists of candidates, he convinced three right-wing parties to join forces and run together. On the same basis of not wasting right-wing votes, now he is trying to convince other small right-wing parties to abandon their campaigns, lest they fail to meet the 3.25% vote threshold to qualify for a Knesset seat, and to join Likud or one of its potential coalition partners. Even so, Zeedan predicts Netanyahu will fail to achieve a right-wing coalition of 61 seats, forcing a unity government.

“The new thing is that those typical coalition negotiations are starting early this time -- before the election,” he said. “Usually, those parties would compete in the campaign without thinking of what will happen the day after election. But Netanyahu is starting those things as early as now to secure that he will be successful the day after the election, leaving the left-center with no other options.”

But Zeedan doubts Netanyahu will succeed in constructing an outright majority coalition among right-wingers.

Zeedan notes that the last time Israeli had a right-left unity government with rotation of the prime minister position was in the 1980s.

“It was more than 30 years ago,” he said. “It was the unity government between the Likud and the Labor party. In the first two years Shimon Peres, the leader of Labor, acted as prime minister, and then switched seats with Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of the Likud.”

It could happen again, Zeedan said.

With just 20 percent of Israel’s population ethnically Arab (not counting the disputed, or occupied, territories), the Arab parties are destined for permanent minority status in the government, just as their people are second-class citizens in a state that defines itself as Jewish, Zeedan says. This is even more so since the passage in 2018 of the so-called “Nation-State Basic Law” defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and officially privileging Jews over non-Jews.

And yet Zeedan is not among those who level the “apartheid” epithet at Israel. Rather, he asserts in the book, it is an illiberal democracy tending toward an authoritarian state.

“I argue with other scholars who do position Israel as more tending towards being an autocratic system, at least toward its Arab citizens,” Zeedan said. “I think that it's not as harsh as they claim. I think that there are also positive things that are happening and have happened, especially  in the past two decades. The problem with my position is that the recent legislation in the past few years is actually moving away from that definition. The upcoming developments after the elections will determine Israel’s direction.”

Photo: A poster touting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party in Israel’s 2015 national elections. Credit: Avishai Teicher, via Wikimedia Commons