It is difficult to write a weekly piece on the Middle East with so many events happening at the same time and when these events are protracted. One can never predict what will happen between the time one submits an article and the time it goes to print. Last week alone, there were elections in Israel and elections in Tunisia. Another “Astana” round was held to determine the fate of Syria. It was attended by Turkey, Russia and Iran while Syria and the US were absent. And there was an Iranian attack against Saudi Arabia. If these made the main headlines, any number of other news items merited commentary and analysis. I have chosen the Israeli elections for this week’s column not only because of the significance of the results in terms of Israeli domestic policies but also because they will impact on other developments in the region to one degree or another.
Already by the time 97 per cent of the votes had been counted (including 180,000 votes cast by diplomats, military and security personnel, persons with special needs, hospital staff and patients and prisoners), Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked the Blue and White Party leader General Benny Gantz to meet with him to discuss forming a national unity government. That meant that the outcome was as good as certain and that nothing could alter it.
The results came as a surprise. Opinion polls up to the time of the elections gave the impression that no one could defeat Netanyahu. Yet that is precisely what happened, even if in accordance with the Israeli proportional list system. The winners — the Blue and White — won 33 seats and the losers — Netanyahu’s party — won 31 seats in the Knesset. This type of surprise has been common in electoral processes in recent years. When no party has a definitive lead, results are not a foregone conclusion. In Tunisia, last week, voters turned their back on all familiar faces and opted for either an academic of good repute or a man under arrest on money laundering charges. In the UK, Conservatives elected Boris Johnson whose first order of business was to prorogue parliament. By the time the smoke had cleared, 21 Tories had been expelled from the party, which lost its parliamentary majority as a result. We find a similar situation in Italy where voters are at a loss because they are faced with a choice between unknowns and newcomers to the political arena. This is the case with Gantz.
The second conclusion one draws from the polls is that Israeli political society is much more complex than it appears. While the commonly held impression among the Arabs is that the Palestinian question is Israeli politicians’ foremost preoccupation, the fact is that they have other equally important issues to contend with. As is the case in many Arab countries, there is a deep divide between secularists and religious conservatives. This has already come into play in the question of coalition talks in which the choice seems to be between a narrow national unity coalition that excludes the religious parties or a broader coalition that includes them.
The third conclusion is that the potential political clout of the Arabs in Israel is not insignificant. If, in the April elections, a split Arab vote managed to earn the Arab parties, collectively, 11 Knesset seats, in this month’s elections (under the revived Joint List) they won 13 seats, making them the third largest bloc in the Knesset. Unity was translated into more votes and more Knesset seats.
Taking the results to a logical conclusion, one can foresee a national unity coalition made up of Blue and White (33 seats), the Likud (31 seats) and Yisrael Beiteinu (8 seats) with possible additions of Labour (6 seats) and the Democratic Union (5 seats). This would yield a government resting on a solid 83 seat majority and excluding the ultra-conservative religious parties and their influence on decision-making processes. The Arabs’ Joint List, which has never had much influence on government decisions in the past, could have some influence in the next Knesset if it follows a one-state solution strategy instead of the moribund two-state solution strategy to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Indeed, the lesson the Arabs learned in this last election, compared to previous electoral rounds, plants the first seed for the exercise of a single state representing 12 million Jews and Palestinians living in equal numbers between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
To make myself clear, while such a proposition is generally unacceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis, the reality on the ground is moving in that direction in terms of economic integration and the gradual growth of a set of common security related interests, as I have discussed in this column before. A recent reading of the current situation appears in a “Critical Policy Brief” by Hamada Jaber published by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) on 10 September. The paper is based on three assumptions: the death or the impossibility of achieving the two-state solution, the imminent collapse of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and thirdly, the impossibility of perpetuating the current status quo in the area between the sea and the river. Readers can consult the paper for further details on this Palestinian approach and strategy, which is based on peaceful resistance and the fact that 20 per cent of Jews support the one state solution while 31 per cent of Palestinians support it. The paper rests a good part of its argument on the role of Palestinian citizens of Israel of whom more than two-thirds support a one-state solution whether in the form of a single democratic state or in a confederal framework.
If the two-state solution reached a dead end due to the Palestinian rift on the one hand and the prevalence of Israeli racism and expansionism on the other, the end of the Netanyahu era might clear the way for new initiatives that respond to a different Palestinian reality inside Israel based on the principle of equality between Arabs and Jews and that simultaneously respond to a different regional reality since the Arab Spring as shaped by civil warfare in Iraq and Syria, the rise of terrorist fundamentalists in the region and the Iranian drive to surround and pressure Arab states. In such initiatives, demography would steer geography rather than the reverse, and the principles of freedom and equality would pit themselves against racism, discrimination and oppression.
A national unity government in Israel does not necessarily signify an easy path for such initiatives. Nothing in the Blue and White platform or in Gantz’s mind propels in that direction. But there is a concept for security and this, as mentioned above, is one of the areas of mutual dependency between Palestinians and Israelis, and one of the areas that give the two sides incentive to work together.
The perpetuation of the status quo is hard to contemplate. It keeps Israel living on the edge of uncertainty and it keeps the Palestinians living without hope for the future. Do the Israeli election results inspire optimism? The answer to this is that optimism and pessimism are contingent on strategy. If the two-state solution resulted from negotiations with Rabin, why can there not be hope for another — non-American — initiative for a one-state solution under Gantz?
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.