On Tuesday, Israelis cast their votes in a do-over election that is widely seen as a referendum on prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political fate.
With nearly all ballots counted (none of them from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, nor Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who are barred from voting), former army chief Benny Gantz appears to hold a narrow lead over Netanyahu’s Likud party. Gantz’s Blue and White party will likely have the first chance to form a government.
Once again, Israelis are bracing for weeks of coalition negotiations and political deal-making to decide Israel’s next government, amid early predictions that the age of Netanyahu has come to an end. Battling for survival, Netanyahu made a post-election appeal to “my friend, President Trump, whose plan of the century will be presented soon,” and “the existential threat to Israel from Iran and its malignant cells.”
The Joint List of Arab parties, which is projected to become the third-largest party in the next Knesset, thanks to Netanyahu’s campaign of anti-Arab scaremongering and voter suppression, is likely to be excluded from coalition negotiations. Both Gantz and Netanyahu pledged not to form a coalition government with Arab parties. This makes Avigdor Lieberman, an unabashed advocate of Arab transfer, the kingmaker. Lieberman, who has declared sitting in government with the Joint List “absurd,” is calling for a national unity government in which his ultranationalistic party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), which is expected to come in fourth, would hold key cabinet positions.
For Palestinians, though, it hardly matters who forms the new government.
None of the leading candidates has a plan for peace. None seeks to end the occupation, let alone the blockade over Gaza. All are committed to maintaining and expanding the illegal settlements. And all have touted proposals to annex much of the West Bank.
Just days before the election, Netanyahu renewed his pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and “all Jewish settlements” in the West Bank. “Thanks to my personal relationship with President Trump,” he boasted before supporters, “I will be able to annex all the settlements in the heart of our homeland.”
Not to be upstaged, Gantz rushed to claim ownership over the annexation plan, saying in a statement: “Blue and White have made clear that the Jordan Valley is part of Israel forever. Netanyahu drafted a plan to cede the Jordan Valley in 2014. We are happy that the Prime Minister has come around to adopt the Blue and White plan to recognize the Jordan valley.”
The tragedy is that Israel has effectively ruled the West Bank for over half a century, more than twice as long as it lived within its own borders. It seizes land and resources, transfers settlers, and displaces natives — substantially altering the demographic landscape and the legal system of the occupied territory, while denying Palestinians meaningful self-government and civil rights.
Regardless of who leads Israel’s next government, Palestinians will wake up to this tragic reality.
If they wake up. Days before the election, Netanyahu floated the prospect of a new attack on Gaza, telling supporters “there probably won’t be a choice but to launch an operation.”
Eager to outdo Netanyahu, Gantz launched his campaign with a video boasting about how he had bombed Gaza “back to the stone age” as military chief of staff in 2014. On Election Day itself, a Dutch court heard a war crime case against Gantz brought by a Dutch national of Palestinian descent, whose family home in the al-Bureij refugee camp in Gaza was bombed that year leading to the death of six family members. More than two thousand Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed altogether in the bombings.
In short, the election has been a referendum on who can crush Palestinians more harshly. The choice is not between centrist and right, as the mainstream media would have it, but between right and far right — and where Palestinians are concerned, two types of hawks. It is with good reason that many Palestinians dub Gantz’s opposition party the second Likud.
The picture is equally grim for Palestinian citizens in Israel.
Netanyahu never tired of reminding supporters that “Israel is not a state for all its citizens,” but “the nation-state of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people only.” Nor did he shy away from telling Arab citizens that “other minorities have a national representation in other countries.”
Parroting his rival, Blue and White cochair Yair Lapid rushed to remind Israelis that “I am against a state of all its citizens, completely and throughout my whole life. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and will remain such.”
When it comes to Palestinian citizens, Israel’s leaders refuses to even offer democracy the dignity of hypocrisy.
To alienate Arab voters still further, all leading candidates vowed not to sit in a government coalition with an Arab party. In the words of Gantz: “We’re willing to sit in government with anyone Jewish and Zionist.” However horrific, this is hardly surprising. Never has an Arab party sat in an Israeli government (which perhaps explains why there are so many snap elections in Israel — Zionist leaders would rather pass on the chance to form a coalition than sit in a government with Arab parties).
Leaders of the Arab Joint List have also ruled out joining a government coalition, after Netanyahu’s rivals rejected their demands for equal rights guarantees. At stake is the Jewish Nation-State Bill. The law, which took effect last year, makes explicit what Israeli leaders have tried to mask for decades: Israel is a democracy only for its Jewish citizens. It enshrines Israel as the “national nation-state of the Jewish people only,” and officially designates Arab Palestinians — more than 20 percent of the country’s population — second-class citizens.
Arab disenfranchisement in Israel goes beyond the Nation-State Law. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, counts more than sixty basic laws that disenfranchise and discriminate against Arab citizens. Together, they bear a striking resemblance to the Jim Crow South, where black political participation was systematically suppressed.
Arab disenfranchisement is also deeply entrenched in the political discourse. For decades, senior Israeli politicians have portrayed Arab citizens as enemies from within, a demographic time bomb, and a fifth-column population. The so-called Lieberman Plan, named for Avigdor Lieberman, proposes transferring territory in Israel populated by Arabs to the Palestinian National Authority in exchange for territory in the West Bank populated by Israeli settlers. Lieberman has also suggested imposing loyalty tests for the Arab minority, threatening to deny citizenship to those who failed. Echoing his foreign minister, Netanyahu has mused about stripping Arabs of their citizenship, citing their “lack of loyalty to the State of Israel.”
Is it any wonder that many Palestinian Arabs continue to view their Israeli citizenship as a mere political fiction, and Israel as a sham democracy? To see elections where only one group enjoys full democratic rights as nothing but a fig leaf for apartheid?
Whoever forms the next government, Israel’s trajectory is clear: more settlements and more annexation of Palestinian land, fewer civil and democratic rights for Palestinian citizens inside, and continued demonization of Palestinians everywhere.
Netanyahu’s rivals may declare victory today, but for Palestinians, the election promises nothing but defeat.