After the winners are done gloating, and the losers are through with feeling bitter, I am left with three wishes: First I ask the center-left (of which I’m part of): respond democratically. Of course we must avoid joining a coalition headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and not to exchange the vision we campaigned with for small-political gains. There is also no point in inner battles within our camp at this stage. All in all, Bibi’s startling rise from 18 to 30 seats left some of us blind to the fact that the absolutist, messianic and ultra-orthodox right-wing bloc had actually shrunk by four seats when compared to the previous Knesset. Our way forward must respect the people’s choice and present a bold opposition in parliament.
Even more importantly, we should turn to substantially engage new audiences, which did not trust us with their vote. We should do it now, not only in four years as part of the next elections campaign. We must build a deeper and wider partnership around our shared values and political programs, and this can only truly happen on the grassroots level: through labour unions, youth movements, the media and civil society organizations. It must occur as a dialectic process, which encourages versatile ethnic and religious groups and different economic sectors to take a meaningful and equal seat at our table. We cannot expect new crowds to simply follow us – we need to be ready to let them co-lead.
My second wish is for the winning side: act responsibly. In the course of these elections, Netanyahu had deepened divisions and made polarizations within Israeli society far more acute. He has accused the left wing of aiding ISIS, he has equated the media and labour unions with Hamas, and warned that against Arab citizens voting “in droves”. His former staff members and current coalition partners, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennet, have used equally vile terms to describe 20% of the Israeli population and to incite against other minority groups. That path had clearly brought some remarkable political gains, considering Netanyahu is set out to form his fourth government, after a long line of security, economic and diplomatic failures on his part. Such racism and bigotry, however, comes with a price. The winning side needs to take the time to contemplate demonstrations including chants of “death to the Arabs” and the proliferation of such messages on social media. It must meditate how ongoing attacks occur against Palestinian communities, churches and mosques by right wing radicals, and how only in the past few days there were physical assaults against two prominent left wing artists.
Dear winners – regardless of the policies you seek to advance, will you take advantage of your sweeping electoral victory and embrace a moral and conciliatory leadership towards all of Israel’s citizens? As President Obama commented: “Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly… And I think that that is what’s best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country”. There are countless issues for the new government to deal with and countless alternatives to choose from. There are no two ways, however, about the need to re-commit Israel to its long neglected and undermined democratic values.
My third wish is for both the winning and the losing sides: focus your thoughts on the conflict with the Palestinians, even at a time of ceasefire and a diplomatic stalemate. The option of a viable Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel might become irrelevant after four more years of Netanyahu’s rejectionism. From 1967 for about 21 years, the Palestinian leadership refused to accept Israel in any border whatsoever. It was “us or them”, with them (the Palestinians) having a pan-Arab backing for their struggle against Israel. The reasoning then for Israel’s rule over another people revolved around security, but with a principled readiness of Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied – provided that the Palestinians would recognize it and make peace (in the famous phrasing of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan: Israel was “waiting for a telephone call from Arab leaders”). Since 1988, political and technical solutions were formulated to enable an agreed upon partition of the land. The Arab world remained engaged, and it switched from being against peace, negotiations and recognition of Israel, to presenting an Arab Peace Initiative for a return to the pre-1967 lines. Complementary work of NGOs helped bridge the gap on the level of people-to-people. This led to a resilient consensus among both Israelis and Palestinians regarding a Two State solution.
However, political leaders failed their people’s hopes time and again. The collapse of the peace process happened because both sides made mistakes, but the question of “who is to blame” remains secondary to the reality on the ground. In the land west of the Jordan there is still one people that is ultimately under the control of another people. In the past months, Netanyahu repeatedly made clear what his actions always suggested: “no to a Palestinian state”. At the same time, he adds that there will not be civil rights granted to Palestinians as part of a binational state. Israeli former prime-ministers and heads of the security apparatus have already explicated the alternative: replacing Israeli democracy with an apartheid regime.
We need to think creatively and profoundly about the future of the two peoples who share this land. With chaos prevailing in the Arab world around us, it’s up to us – Israelis and Palestinians. How does Israel retain its national character without dividing the land? What are the nominal and the operational meanings of Jewish and Palestinian national aspirations? To what extent can millions of Palestinians be denied basic rights in the name of a maximalist national-religious Zionist-Jewish identity? On the other hand, to what extent can any political cooperation with Israelis be rejected a-priori in the name of a national-religious Palestinian-Muslim identity? Alongside vocal hardliners, there is also an abundance of moderate voices on both sides. All those who can speak, must do so now that the elections campaigns are over. If we can’t answer those challenges in one voice, we must at least ask in one voice: since you say no to a Palestinian state, and you reject a binational one, Mr. Netanyahu – what is your vision?
This article was was first published in The Times of Israel.