Arab backing for Benny Gantz is driven by frustration

The endorsement by the Arab Joint List has been prompted by the need to topple Benjamin Netanyahu

Members of the Joint List Ayman Odeh, center, speaks to the press in the presence of Ahmad Tibi, right, Osama Saadi, left, and Mansour Abbas, second left, following their consulting meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. Rivlin began two days of crucial talks Sunday with party leaders before selecting his candidate for prime minister, after a deadlocked repeat election was set to make forming any new government a daunting task. (Menahem Kahana/Pool via AP)
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Whatever happens next in the game of chess that is Israeli politics is critical to the Palestinian right to self-determination. On Sunday the majority of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab parties, decided to back Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as prime minister, putting his endorsements at 54, compared to 55 for the incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. With both still short of the 61-majority needed, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin sat down with Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu in a bid to persuade them to form a unity government. He is expected to announce who should form a government on Wednesday.

The Joint List’s endorsement of Mr Gantz, minus the support of the Balad party, is primarily about an alliance of convenience rather than conviction. It has been nearly three decades since Arab politicians in Israel backed a candidate for the Knesset. That was in 1992, when they threw their support behind Yitzhak Rabin, a man who sought to make peace with Palestinians and shook hands with the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, at the signing of the Oslo Accords of 1993. Tragically, Rabin was assassinated two years later for his advocacy and the promise of a more peaceful future died with him.

Today, 27 years on, decades of hate-filled rhetoric and anti-Palestinian policies, largely promulgated by Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party, have swayed Israeli opinion further and further to the right, to such an extent that his recent campaign promise to annex the Jordan Valley, an area that makes up one quarter of the West Bank, has actually boosted Mr Netanyahu's popularity, instead of exposing him as an opportunistic warmonger. As a result, both Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinians in the occupied territories – who do not get to vote – have been backed into a corner. But the Palestinians who do have a say in this election are choosing to say no to another four years of Bibi, even if this means backing an option that is almost equally unpalatable.

That Arab leaders in Israel have decided to endorse a politician who, earlier this year, threatened to bomb Gaza “back to the Stone Age” during his time as an army chief is not indicative of an endorsement for Mr Gantz’s unsavoury views. He himself has yet to publicly accept their support. In fact, as Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, wrote in the New York Times, Arab parties will not be part of a Gantz-led government as he “has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future”.

The decision to back him as Israel's prime minister is not a pledge of allegiance but rather, a sign of their frustration with Mr Netanyahu's anti-Palestinian policies, which have run any hope for peace and equality into the ground in his 13 years in power. In that sense, the Joint List's support for Mr Gantz's bid is the crowning of an era of failed hopes.

In addition to its decades-long occupation, which includes the expansion of illegal settlements throughout the West Bank, a siege that has crippled the Gaza Strip for more than a decade and countless human rights violations against Palestinians, Israeli authorities have sought to oppress the Arabs who live within their own borders. Last year Mr Netanyahu passed the nation state law stating that Israel belonged solely to Jewish people. That flies in the face of the Joint List’s call for more Palestinian rights and the pursuit of peace.

In the second Israeli election this year, no one has emerged as an outright winner, raising the spectre of a third ballot. This leaves a narrow window of opportunity for the Joint List to push for change and demand more rights. Whichever leader triumphs from current negotiations, none is likely to revive the peace process or promote equality for all citizens. But this is no reason for Arab politicians not to push strongly for a change in the status quo.