TEL AVIV — There’s little joy in witnessing one of the most intriguing political experiments of Israel’s recent history come to an end.
It took one year and one week for the leaders of Israel’s ruling coalition — Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his senior coalition partner, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — to announce they could no longer see a way to govern effectively and would dissolve their government. What allowed for the creation of the government in the first place, a decision by ideologically opposed political parties to compromise on their strong ideologies, ultimately led to the government’s undoing.
In Israel, of course, all ruling coalitions have several parties, often with incompatible ideologies. But one feature made this attempt especially bold: The leaders of the country’s most ideologically divergent parties united to keep Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, out of power. That desire brought a Jewish-Arab political partnership and, for the first time in Israel’s history, an independent Islamist Arab party, Raam, into a coalition government.
Raam’s inclusion in that coalition was audacious and eventually fatal, but the precedent it has set is critical. Whether Mr. Netanyahu and the right-religious bloc win the next election or another near tie forces Israel to accept another awkward political arrangement, the option of Arab participation is on the table: One Arab party has shown itself ready and willing to have an active and constructive role in governing Israel. We’ve already seen what can come out of such cooperation: a new political reality of surprising political alliances that forces both Jews and Arabs to consider the coalition’s successes and reconsider their previously long-held positions.
Despite Israel’s traditional political gridlock, this government did manage to get some work done. For starters, it passed a budget, the first in over three years. The government also invested resources and energy in trying to reverse a trend of rising crime and violence in Arab cities in Israel. It sought to improve the education and health systems in Arab neighborhoods and tried to resolve disputes over land ownership in certain areas.
These steps were incremental, but they were steps in the right direction. Yet by far the biggest achievement of the coalition was that, for a year, it worked.
For a long time, Arab representatives have stayed on the sidelines of the Knesset as an ineffective opposition, without even trying to utilize their significant clout to alter the balance of power. Of course, they had their reasons: Their objections to Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians were many, and their discomfort with Israel’s self-defined character as a Jewish State was also visible. The bottom line was that Israel’s policies in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere had become an insurmountable obstacle to domestic politics for some Arab Israelis.
The departing coalition was created out of necessity — it was the only path to unseat Mr. Netanyahu — but it almost immediately came under vicious attack from its detractors: mostly the Jewish right, as well as the Joint List, the other, larger Arab party.
Parties such as the right-wing Likud and the Religious Zionist Party tried to undermine the legitimacy of the government from the moment it was established, by repeatedly claiming that it relied on terrorism supporters. Some believe that, as Dan Diker and Khaled Abu Toameh wrote for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Raam is “employing a recognized strategy of political Islam to penetrate a state’s political system to achieve Islamic ideological goals” — that is, not a Jewish Israel. (Raam and Hamas have roots in the same Islamist movement.) For the Religious Zionist Party, ideologically similar to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, Raam would have been an unthinkable partner. And yet Mr. Bennett’s Yamina party, also right wing, could envision a partnership.
To be sure, so could Mansour Abbas, the leader of Raam. “It’s possible to do things differently,” he said, explaining his motivation for participating in such an ideologically discordant government.
But leaders of the Joint List attacked Raam because, they argued, Raam put its principles aside by joining right-wing parties that support West Bank settlements in government and in the process gave up on important Palestinian issues. Mr. Abbas didn’t mince words when he said that “the State of Israel was born as a Jewish state,” adding that “it was born this way and will remain that way.” Yet the Joint List rejected Mr. Abbas’s approach of focusing on the domestic agenda of Arab Israelis while Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues and Palestinian grievances are unresolved. (A member of the Joint List and Mr. Abbas clashed bitterly during Thursday’s vote to dissolve the Knesset.)
In the end, whether they came from the Jewish right or the other Arab parties in the Knesset, the arguments against the coalition were the same: Their peers crossed a line when they agreed to cooperate with an enemy for political gain. And the pressure campaign over the past year eventually worked. When the coalition collapsed, Mr. Netanyahu rejoiced because, he said, the government had taken actions that “endangered our Jewish identity.” Palestinian Israeli lawmakers decried the government’s positions on, among other things, expanding settlements.
Apparently, antipathy to Mr. Netanyahu is not a strong enough glue to keep a coalition together through the parliamentary grind. The past 12 months have seen Jewish legislators from right-wing parties abandon the coalition. The final straw came when Arab legislators and right-wing opposition lawmakers refused to vote with the coalition on a bill to extend Israeli citizens’ rights to Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The process of erosion started slowly and then accelerated. In April the coalition lost its narrow 61-member majority. In May, it kept shrinking and became a minority coalition.
Now Israelis will be once more on their way to the polls — their fifth election in four years — with the realistic prospect of yet another near tie that could force legislators to consider creative alliances. Could there be another Jewish-Arab partnership? The answer is yes, but to make it successful, perceptions must evolve.
Arab parties must ask themselves whether they are ready to embrace the state and accept its vision of Jewish national expression. They need to realize that cooperation and integration are the only ways to effect change for Arab Israelis, as we’ve seen, and in the future maybe also for Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Jewish majority, which wouldn’t dream of giving up on Zionism as the guiding vision for Israel, has an even greater responsibility to ask itself whether it has set the bar for Arab participation in a ruling coalition too high. It must interrogate whether suspicion of Arab participation is reasonable and fact based or a psychological leftover (with racist undertones), from when Israel was still a fragile and insecure place, that should now be dispensed with. Ultimately, Jewish Israelis must recognize that Arab participation is integral to maintaining the security and well-being of all citizens.
Whatever happens, a once unthinkable coalition created just over 365 days ago opened the gate to a new and thrilling possibility of cooperation. A dam has broken.