Netanyahu capitalizes on war

Israel’s war on Hamas has given new life to Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to hold onto power as prime minister.

It wasn’t looking good for Netanyahu before the conflict escalated, with two minority parties having agreed to form a coalition to oust Bibi. But on May 13, Yamina party Chair Naftali Bennett, who had a nearly done deal with Yesh Atid party Chair Yair Lapid, told Lapid the deal was off.

The collapse of the prospect for a so-called “government of change,” based on nothing more than a shared desire to defeat Bibi, “is the direct outcome of violent clashes in mixed Jewish-Arab towns this week,” writes Mazal Mualem.

Lapid still has until June 2 to form a government before the process is turned over to the Knesset (parliament). If the parliament can’t decide, there will be a fifth election, which would take months — and Bibi would remain prime minister in the interim.

Bennett’s right-wing supporters had misgivings about an alliance with Lapid, even before the Gaza escalation, and especially because the alliance depended on the backing of Islamist Raam party leader Mansour Abbas. Abbas and Raam are presumed by many to be ideological distant cousins of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. After the recent violence, Bennett drew the line at a deal with Lapid for a government backed by Abbas.

Lapid’s prospects seem increasingly dim after Bennett’s call, but it’s not over. New Hope Party Chair Gideon Saar and Israel Our Home Party (Yisrael Beitenu) Chair Avigdor Liberman are still in the mix. Both are cagey political players and former Likud members and Bibi allies, who could decide to flip the balance by joining with Lapid, and perhaps freezing out both Netanyahu and Abbas.

But the political machinations are in some way a distraction to the fault line between Arab and Jewish Israelis that was revealed this week.

“The flare-up with Gaza was just a trailer for the real drama that unfolded within Israel,” adds Mualem, “with young Arab Israelis, likely incited by Hamas, turning on their Jewish neighbors in two towns that had been symbols of coexistence — Lod and Acre.”

“What stood out throughout these outbreaks of violence was the country’s deeply flawed governance as reflected in its prolonged political crisis,” continues Mualem. “Not only did the leadership appear helpless, the police seemed unable to control the spread of unrest, prompting some Jews to feel compelled to defend themselves.”

The unacceptable toll of the bloodletting between Israel and Hamas will, at some point, reach an end. But this Arab-Jewish violence is, really, to apply an overused and misused expression, an existential challenge to Israel. Nobody expected such an explosive reaction from Israel’s Arab citizens to the events in Jerusalem and Gaza.

Arab citizens of Israel make up 20% of Israel’s population. Prior to recent events, Abbas was a potential kingmaker and bridge builder, a sign of a possible new normal in Israeli politics. His campaign was about local politics, not ideology or identity. Abbas has said he will be ready to resume talks about the next government after violence dies down.

But Abbas needs to read the street. He could be one who helps rebuild the burned bridges between Arabs and Jews. Or he could be sidelined in the next government formation, with his people seeing him as the one who sought a naive and elusive compromise. That chapter has yet to be written. Afif Abu Much, more than any other writer, chronicles the rapidly evolving trends among Arab Israelis.

While Netanyahu and other right-wing politicians may be inclined to toss Abbas aside, given the political currents, Ben Caspit writes that “the real remedy” to endless strife is “Arab participation in the country’s governance and decision-making.”