Last week, Bret Stephens penned a New York Times column entitled, “Israel’s democracy is doing just fine.” With their “rebuke” of Benjamin Netanyahu at the polls, Stephens declared, “Israelis showed that demagogy doesn’t work.”
This week, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave Netanyahu the opportunity to form Israel’s next government. Netanyahu could fail to do so, in which case his center-right rival, Benny Gantz, would likely get the chance. But there’s a real possibility that Netanyahu — a man so racist that Facebook shut down one of his chatbots for violating its hate speech rules this month, and so authoritarian that the president of Israel’s supreme court this spring compared his attacks on judicial independence to the Nazi era — will remain Israel’s leader well into the future.
Israeli democracy is not doing fine.
It’s not doing fine in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli control cannot vote in Israeli elections. (Yes, Israel controls Gaza). And it’s not even doing fine inside Israel proper. The problem isn’t merely Netanyahu. In many ways, he’s a symptom. The deeper malady is that Palestinians — even Palestinians who live inside the green line and can thus vote in Israeli elections — aren’t considered equal citizens. If they were, Netanyahu would likely be gone by now.
A word about language. Most Israeli and American Jews call Palestinians who enjoy Israeli citizenship “Arabs.” So do America’s best newspapers. That’s a problem. It’s a problem because, according to some polls, it’s not what most Palestinian citizens call themselves (other polls disagree). It’s also a problem because referring to Israel’s Palestinian citizens as generic “Arabs”—a term that encompasses everyone from Saudi Arabia to Morocco—implies that the Palestinians on either side of the green line do not constitute one people. When black Americans began embracing the term “African American” to emphasize their ties to other people of African descent, most American journalists respected that decision. Now that many Palestinian Israelis are increasingly calling themselves “Palestinian” to emphasize their membership in the Palestinian people, American journalists should not exclusively call them Arab.
Discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens is one big reason Netanyahu has a shot at remaining prime minister. In last week’s election, Gantz’s Blue and White party won 33 Knesset seats to 32 for Netanyahu’s Likud. Had Gantz wanted to, he probably could also have forged a centrist coalition that was larger than Netanyahu’s right-wing one. With smaller right-wing and religious Jewish parties, Netanyahu assembled a coalition of 55 seats. (A Knesset majority requires 61). Had Gantz sought the support of the entire Joint List—the various Palestinian Israeli parties that teamed up for the elections—he could likely have assembled a coalition of 57 seats. With the largest party and the largest coalition, he would have had a strong case for getting the first shot at forming a government.
But Gantz, according to news reports, encouraged the Joint List not to give him its full endorsement. Instead of urging the three most reluctant Palestinian Knesset members (from the nationalist Balad party) to endorse him, he urged them not to. The reason: Gantz didn’t want the largest coalition. He didn’t want the largest coalition because he knew that even with 57 seats he would likely not to be able to horse-trade his way to a majority of 61. Instead, he opted to let Netanyahu go first in the hopes that Netanyahu will fail, which would leave Gantz in a stronger position to eventually form a unity government with Likud.
Why does all this micro-strategy expose the weakness of Israeli democracy? Because the reason Gantz didn’t want the largest coalition—the reason he didn’t think he could get from 57 to 61 seats—is because Palestinian parties aren’t generally considered legitimate parts of an Israeli governing coalition. By tradition, the government of a Jewish state needs a Jewish majority in the Knesset. Avigdor Lieberman, whose eight seats make him a potential kingmaker, has called the Palestinian parties not merely “political opponents” but “enemies.” He’s vowed that, “Wherever they sit we’ll be on the other side.” The ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties have said they won’t join a government with Palestinian parties either. Even Gantz himself has ruled it out.
All this means that the votes of Palestinian Israelis, who comprise twenty percent of Israel’s citizens, matter less than the votes of Jewish Israelis. They matter less because although they count in determining the composition of Israel’s parliament, they don’t really count in determining the composition of Israel’s government.
Ideologically, that’s hugely significant. It’s significant because the Palestinian parties are among Israel’s most progressive. When they last published a joint platform, in 2015, it sounded like something you’d hear at a Bernie Sanders rally. It called not merely for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel but also for nuclear disarmament, “equal rights for women in all areas of life,” “environmental justice,” “the interests of the weaker classes in our society against governmental policies which make the poor even poorer, and the rich richer” and an increase in the minimum wage.
Obviously, Israel’s Palestinian citizens aren’t ideologically monolithic. The Joint List includes a communist, a nationalist and even an Islamist party. But as an underprivileged minority that faces structural discrimination, Palestinian Israelis have embraced an agenda that sounds a lot like the agenda championed by other marginalized groups.
According to polls, Palestinian Israelis are much more interested in living alongside Israeli Jews than Israeli Jews are in living alongside them. There’s a reason that the head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, often quotes Martin Luther King.
So asking Israeli progressives to form a government without relying on Palestinian Israeli votes is almost like asking American progressives to form a government without relying on African American votes. It gives the right a massive advantage. It’s part of the reason Netanyahu may remain prime minister.
Building an Israeli government, and an Israeli identity, broad enough to truly include Palestinian citizens won’t be easy. Only once — in the early 1990s, under Yitzhak Rabin — have Palestinian parties been included, de facto, in an Israeli government. And as Balad’s decision not to endorse Gantz reveals, some Palestinian leaders are still reluctant to legitimize a Zionist government. But working toward that goal, and building an integrated Palestinian-Jewish left, is the only long-term answer to the rising authoritarianism that Netanyahu represents.
In an oped last week in The Times, Ayman Odeh wrote that Palestinian citizens could be “the cornerstone of [Israeli] democracy.” He’s exactly right. In Israel, as in the United States, defeating authoritarianism requires mobilizing voters who loathe bigotry and cherish equality. Doing that requires treating Palestinian citizens of Israel not as pariahs but as equals. Until that happens, Israeli democracy will not be fine.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.