The new right-center-left government which may or may not pass a Knesset vote of confidence a week from Monday (or earlier) has reached two never before seen milestones in Israeli politics: for the first time, a religious Orthodox Jew will serve as prime minister; and two Arabs will hold ministerial portfolios. Curiously, the left in Israel is not exceptionally troubled by a religious PM, but the right is unsettled by the Arab participation, and not because right-wing Jews are supposedly anti-Arab, but because these two Arab ministers have not accepted the Zionist narrative of the Jewish State. Neither one, in fact, attempts to hide his anti-Zionist views (keep reading below to see their most recent statements).
This proposed new government also has to be the most ideologically conflicted assembly of Israelis, never mind political parties. And about some of these coalition parties, we’re not even sure how to classify them. We know Meretz and Labor are radical left-wing. We also know Yamina and New Hope are right-wing. But is Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu right or left? It’s certainly right-wing on economic issues. But its bread and butter voters, Israeli Russians, object to religious restrictions associated with the Haredi parties. Likewise in Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – Lapid rose to power in 2013 by promising to cut Haredi dependence on the dole and kept his promise – as finance minister he made sure they were so independent they could starve. But Yesh Atid is also home to some defense policy hawks with nothing in common with the likes of Meretz.
The great messianic figure that unites all of them is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they all wish to see gone from Israel’s politics. Will the gang break up once that part is achieved? Possibly but not likely. Because all of them, all the politicians of many different colors and shades, are facing extinction should this government collapse before it shows some significant achievements to their suspicious and finicky voters. So they’re bound together by that combination made famous by the late, great Hunter Thompson: fear and loathing.
Enter the Arabs. Meretz MK Issawi Frej, who will serve as Minister of Regional Development in the Bennett-Lapid government, on Thursday told interviewer Nathaniel Semrik of Kontnto Neo: “As soon as I take office, I will visit the home of Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas’s nom de guerre).”
“I’m ending the ten years of neglect during which the Palestinians did not exist,” Frej said. “If I don’t visit Abu Mazen, it would be as if I stick my head in the sand like an ostrich.”
On behalf of the ostrich community, I feel obligated to point out here that ostriches do not hide their heads in the sand, ever. Their response to attackers is either fleeing – they’re very fast – or kicking. They kick very hard. But, of course, MK Frej is not going to be the minister of regional flightless birds. That post is reserved for Benny Gantz…
Frej added that, in his opinion, “Naftali Bennett will have no problem with such a visit. It’s not a problem for either Bennett or Lapid.”
Smerik asked: “How will you get your passport stamped by Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked?” Meaning the Yamina leader could prevent his planned trip to Ramallah.
MK Frej replied: “All of us in the government want the good of the country. Each from a different angle. I think it’s in the best interest of my country to strengthen my neighbors, and not ignore my neighbor and humiliate and neglect him. I want good things for me and him. I want a win-win game –if it’s good for a Palestinian – it’s good for an Israeli. When I offer hope for the Palestinian problem, I release a lot of pressure in the Arab minority in the State of Israel, who on the one hand want to be in, but on the other hand are thrown out, via the Nationality Law.”
The Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, a.k.a. the Nationality Law, or the Nation-State Bill, was enacted on July 19, 2018, by a vote of 62 to 55 and two abstentions. Although it is largely symbolic and declarative, it was met with harsh criticism internationally. Israeli Arabs and other minorities—most notably the Druze—were infuriated by the basic principles of the new law:
The land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.
The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.
The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
The new law also demoted Arabic from its position of equality with Hebrew as an official language, and reduced it to having a “special status.”
Believe it or not, Frej is the less problematic Arab in the room, especially since he’s a secularist. Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas is a Muslim whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood. So while Frej may argue that some aspects of the Zionist state are an insult to Israeli Arabs, according to Ra’am they are an insult to Allah.
In a Thursday interview with a Jordanian TV channel, Mansour Abbas stated: “We don’t see nuances in the political Zionism rainbow from right to left – they all serve their project, their state.” Abbas stressed that he and his followers are not Israelis by definition but part of “a Palestinian Arab public whose members are Israeli citizens as well as part of our Palestinian nation.”
When asked about the accusations against him of betraying the cause, Abbas responded: “My identity is clear and I’m doing what I can regarding the issue of our Palestinian nation: we support Al Aqsa, watch over the mosque, invest in development in Jerusalem with the goal of establishing our people there.”
He explained that “as civilians in Palestine who were born into this reality, we adjust our policy according to this reality. We will never give up our foundations in our land and our homeland.”
Regarding his joining the Zionist coalition Abbas said Ra’am acts “to take advantage of the tools of the political system in Israel to be an influential entity without the responsibility of direct participation in government.”
That last part may not represent reality, seeing as Abbas has been offered the post of deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, where he would be in charge of Arab-related policy issues. It’s direct participation in my book.
In my opinion, neither Abbas nor Frej will ever sing Hatikvah, standing at attention or otherwise.
Also, there are many pro-Zionist Arabs—Muslims—I’d rather see in government as a means of allowing this hefty minority of 21% of the population of Israel to take an active part in government. The best I can say in defense of including a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate in government is that it’s probably better to have them inside the tent doing their business outside than the other way around. Meanwhile, immeasurable damage threatens Jewish life in the Negev and elsewhere under the new construction permits the new government is granting Israeli Bedouin and Arabs, coupled with official recognition of outright illegal settlements.
This will not be an easy ship to right for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. May the Ruler of the Universe grant him Solomon’s wisdom, except, maybe, the part about splitting the baby.