Israel celebrated its seventy-second Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) yesterday in what was probably the strangest iteration of that holiday in the country’s history. The lockdowns and social distancing restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic turned a holiday of public celebrations and large outdoor gatherings of family and friends into one spent grilling alone and conducting virtual toasts. Yet this Yom Ha’atzmaut also marks an apex in Israeli pride and identity, as the transformation that many Israeli Jews have long said they want – Israel’s Arabs embracing their country and buying into the Israeli project – is now a reality. The irony is that as Israeli Arabs are becoming more Israeli, it is Israeli Jews who are ignoring the ways in which this will strengthen Israel and further cement its foundations. For all the tired repetition of the trope that Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, it is actually Israeli leaders who are missing the golden opportunity that is staring them in the face.
The Jewish People Policy Institute released its annual Pluralism Index last week, which looks at attitudes among different sectors of Israeli society. It tends to be a valuable snapshot particularly of changing views on religion and state and the evolution of Israeli Arab views of and engagement with Israeli state and society. This year’s Index captures the unmistakable trend of Israeli Arabs feeling more Israeli, more comfortable in Israel, and exhibiting a greater sense of Israeli patriotism. This is a heartening development in its own right, but it also demonstrates just how badly Benny Gantz and the rest of the Kachol Lavan camp miscalculated in assessing its long-term political prospects and the future of Israel’s political map.
For the second year in a row, Israeli Jews and Israeli non-Jews display nearly identical levels of comfort being themselves in Israel, at 89% and 85% respectively. More saliently, non-Jewish Israelis not only feel comfortable, but feel Israeli and more so than any other competing identity marker. 55% of non-Jewish Israelis say they feel like a “real Israeli” either very much or a fair amount with only 18% saying not at all. More tellingly, 51% of non-Jews say their primary identity is Arab Israeli and another 23% say it is Israeli, with Arab being the next largest category at 15% and Palestinian receiving only 7%. This is an enormous jump from last year, when Arab Israeli was still the largest category at 48%, but Arab and Palestinian were respectively 27% and 18%, and Israeli only 5%. It will require another year of data to see if this transformation holds or represents insignificant noise in the polling, but given the years-long growth of a distinct Israeli identity taking hold among non-Jewish Israelis, I suspect that this signals a real change.
The JPPI survey is not the only marker of Israeli Arabs demonstrating their Israeliness. In the past couple of years, Israeli Arabs have mobilized in greater numbers to vote for the Knesset, to demand changes to the nation-state law, and to demonstrate against discrimination in municipal funding and services. Their elected representatives have recommended a Zionist candidate for prime minister for the first time since 1992, with the September and March elections representing only the second and third times that this has happened in the entire history of the State of Israel. Additionally, they have agreed to join a governing coalition if their requests – almost all of which deal with internal Israeli domestic issues rather than Israeli-Palestinian issues – are met, and have stressed repeatedly that they want to work within the Israeli system rather than boycott it or tear it down. Israeli Arabs have been busy asserting and working towards their own independence, as an Israeli minority that wants to be free not only from official legal discrimination but from the widespread and too-acceptable societal discrimination that still rampantly exists.
Now consider what the response to this has been. After the Joint List twice recommended Gantz for prime minister, ensuring that after the second and third elections he received the mandate from President Ruvi Rivlin to form a government before Prime Minister Netanyahu, Gantz repeatedly went out of his way to say that he would not include them in a coalition. He ultimately even rejected forming a minority government that would only rely on the Joint List’s vote twice, once to establish a government and once to approve a budget. After the third election, he used their recommendation to instead enter into unity negotiations and sign an agreement with Netanyahu, who is the bête noir of most Israeli Arab voters.
Not only was this all ethically suspect, it was politically obtuse. By rejecting the Joint List and by extension the hundreds of thousands of Arab voters who sent their fifteen MKs to the Knesset, Gantz automatically put himself in a fifteen seat hole when trying to form a government. These are MKs who will never join with Netanyahu and the right, and rather than trying to figure out how to mesh their requests with his own principles and realign Israel’s political map to his own advantage, Gantz sacrificed any long-term political prospects for Kachol Lavan and joined Netanyahu. There is no conceivable path for Gantz and his party going forward after the next Israeli election, whenever that may be. He will not get right-wing votes as they will go to the established right-wing parties, and he will not get the votes of anyone looking for an alternative to Netanyahu and Likud.
The same goes even more so for Labor, which used to be a dominant left of center party and is now a sad wisp of shadow that will have two ministers in a Netanyahu government (assuming that the unity deal is actually realized) and then disappear entirely. Labor could have also recognized the opportunity in the empowerment of Israeli Arabs as they assert their Israeli identity and their growing political strength, and made a bid to create a long-term alliance between left of center Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs focused on democracy and equality. Instead, Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli accepted some pieces of coalition silver and ensured that their political resting places in a potter’s field are already being plotted out.
Looking at the Israeli political spectrum, the inescapable conclusion is that the immediate future of left of center politics rests primarily now with the Joint List and Israeli Arab voters. My hunch is that an alliance between the Joint List and Meretz will be in the works as a way of harnessing Jewish voters as well. What a pity that as Israeli Arabs are embracing their Israeli identity, the people who would be best placed to harness that energy and carry out the next mahapach in the Israeli political system are too strategically myopic and politically cowardly to recognize what is taking place before their eyes.