Gantz has a historic opportunity

By extending an olive branch to Arab citizens and relaunching a stalled peace process, Benny Gantz can make things right

FILE PHOTO: A banner depicts Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, and Israel Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of Blue and White party's campaign ahead of the upcoming election, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 17, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
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For the third time in less than a year, no one party or coalition has won a firm majority in Israel's parliamentary election, held earlier this month. The country's leadership is scrambling to secure political alliances amid a climate of division. To break the deadlock, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has tasked opposition leader Benny Gantz with the first opportunity to form a new government.

This long election cycle has furthered divisions within Israeli society and promoted a spike in hate speech against Arab citizens of Israel. It has also hindered any chance at relaunching peace talks with Palestinians, as candidates competed in spewing hate towards their neighbours.

Mr Netanyahu repeatedly argued for annexing large parts of the West Bank, in violation of international law. Meanwhile Mr Gantz boasted last year about bombing Gaza “back to the Stone Age”. This politicking has hindered any true chance at peace, and it has divided Israelis along ethnic and religious lines.

With a very narrow majority in parliament for his divided coalition, Mr Gantz might be tempted to veer to the far right yet again, or to accept Mr Netanyahu’s proposition of forming a unity government with the Likud and its extremist allies.

The coronavirus outbreak has so far played in Mr Netanyahu's favour

Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beitenu, as well as two Blue and White members, have said they opposed any government that includes the Arab Joint List, the country’s third-largest party. Mr Lieberman has instead called for a unity government, an option that would allow Mr Netanyahu to cling on to power and possibly evade prosecution.

The coronavirus outbreak has so far played in Mr Netanyahu’s favour. He has implemented strong measures against the pandemic to project a strongman aura. His trial — on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes — has also been postponed for two months over the virus scare.

But for now, Mr Gantz has an historic opportunity to make things right. By extending an olive branch to the Arab Joint List, Mr Gantz could lead the country's first government with an Arab representation. This prospect would allow Arab citizens of Israel, who make up nearly a quarter of all Israelis, to finally have a say in matters that affect their own destiny. It would also send a strong signal to the Palestinian Authority, and possibly help to relaunch peace talks to resolve a 70-year-old crisis that Mr Gantz's predecessor has only succeeded in exacerbating. More than 4 million Palestinians live under occupation in the West Bank, or have to cope with a crippling blockade in the Gaza Strip. Millions more have been rendered stateless in neighbouring countries, and cannot go back home. Occupation and annexation have not made Israel any safer, contrary to the claims of extremists, nor is it a long-term solution to the conflict.

Mr Gantz must seize this opportunity to restart the wheels of diplomacy and promote tolerance, instead of using the same scaremongering tactics that have propelled Mr Netanyahu to power for the past two decades, and which have pushed Israel and Palestine to the brink.