Hundreds of people gather with Arab deputies who are in the Israeli parliament stage a protest against Israel demolishing houses belonging to Arabs in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 30, 2018. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf / Anadolu Agency

A celebrity post on Instagram was the unlikely catalyst for an open redefinition of Israeli identity regarding an issue which may impinge on the April election outcome.

As part of its electoral campaign, the ruling Likud party has claimed that the Blue and White party intends to form a coalition which would include the Arab parties. Due to the severity of ethnic tensions in Israel, this counts as a form of political demonization. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned that the left-wing and Arab parties will obtain enough seats in the Knesset to block a right-wing coalition from forming.

Former model and television presenter Rotem Sela posted a political message on social media criticizing this approach. Sela wrote the Likud warns “that the public needs to watch out, because if Benny Gantz is elected, he’ll need to form a government with Arabs…when the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal.” Sela was pilloried by right-wing social media and lionized by its left-wing equivalent.

This being election season, Netanyahu jumped in, hoping to score cheap political points. He posted “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the nation-state law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and not anyone else.”

Gathering the cabinet after his online spat with Sela, Netanyahu explained “Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone. Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

While previous Prime Ministers have repeatedly referred to Israel as a Jewish state, the formulation that the state does not belong to its non-Jewish citizens represents a new level of rhetorical exclusion.

Netanyahu’s heavy-handed response was quickly rebuked. President Reuven Rivlin, also previously a Likud member of Knesset expressed opposition to the new approach of the party to the dynamic between the Jewish and democratic elements in the Israeli identity conundrum. In an attempt to revive the classic vague balance between the two, Rivlin stated that “those who believe in the duty of the State of Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state in the full sense of the word must remember that in the State of Israel there are full equal rights to all of the country’s citizens.” Actress Gal Gadot, who played the heroine in Wonder Woman and is one of the most popular figures in the country, also defended Sela and her perspective.

Existential Instagram debate

Despite being held in an arena normally reserved for bikini and food selfies, the conversation is existential to the state of Israel and may pertain to the outcome of the elections. Since independence, Israel has walked a precarious tightrope between the twin dangers of losing connection to its Jewish roots and oppressing non-Jews and its secular population in the name of tradition. If it were to fully embrace either of these aspects at the expense of the other, large sectors in society would feel disenfranchised.

Overall, it has done a reasonable job. Israel is consistently ranked as a problematic yet solid democracy according to most metrics (unlike its rule in the occupied territories which is clearly undemocratic) despite maintaining a strongly Jewish identity. A crucial component in this success is the opaque nature of the balance between the two elements.

The Netanyahu government has rejected a nuanced balance between the Jewish and democratic components by viscerally emphasizing the former part of that equation. In July 2018, the Knesset passed the controversial “nation-state bill” which delineated the role of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. There was nothing substantively new in this bill which restated the obvious.

The problem was more in the intentional omissions of the bill. It does not refer to the democratic nature of Israel. It also includes only the most cursory references to minority-rights, limiting them to linguistic and religious rights. If so, the problem with the law was that it firmly took a one-sided approach to the identity of Israel, undermining the careful balance which had previously existed.

This is extremely painful for many on the left but particularly so for non-Jewish minorities. The question Sela addressed is one of the most important questions arising from this balance. Israel has long claimed to treat Arab citizens equally. In many ways it does. Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the same rights to vote and stand for office as Jewish citizens. They are increasingly involved in elite occupations such as media, medicine and academia and enjoy a freedom of expression which is rare in the Middle East.

Arab inclusion

However, in the most real sense they are structurally excluded from power. Due to ethnic tensions and suspicions as well as a reluctance on the part of Jews to trust Arab politicians with security secrets, no Arab nationalist party has been part of a ruling coalition. During the years of the Oslo process, Arab parties sometimes supported the left-wing government from the outside but they did not participate in government decision-making. The Israeli political system is based on coalition government. Budgets and policies are determined within the government limiting the opposition to peripheral influence. De-facto, the Arab citizens of Israel are deprived of policy influence.

The question of Arab inclusion in the government is more relevant now than ever. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party is ahead in the polls but seems unlikely to have enough Jewish partners to form a stable government coalition. The head of the largest Arab party Ayman Odeh recently published an op-ed in the New York Times stating his readiness to join a Gantz led government. Odeh wrote, “if the center-left parties believe Palestinian citizens of Israel have a place in this country, they must accept that we have a place in its politics.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/opinion/israel-election.html

This is why Netanyahu is hammering the illegitimacy of a coalition including the Arab parties. Sadly, this issue is a political winner for the Likud. The Blue and White party has been scared to wade into the waters of this controversy. In a speech he gave recently, Gantz criticized Netanyahu for attacking models on Instagram “instead of making decisions.” However, he said nothing about the identity of the state. The Blue and White party does not want to be cast as supporting a government with the Arabs. Indeed, the constant attacks by the Likud have coincided with an erosion of Gantz’s lead in the polls. This has led some observers to note that Sela has more courage than the former generals running the centrist party.

The problem with Netanyahu’s response is not that he said something objectionable. Rather it is the undeniable fact that he is describing reality. Debates on Instagram notwithstanding, as long as Israel continues to exclude the Arabs from the government, it will continue to be a country only for its Jewish citizens.

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