Escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza Banging on the Doors of Israeli Coalition Negotiations
Ahmed Tibi (center 3rd-L), member of the Knesset for the Joint List, and ex-Knesset member Jamal Zahalka (center 2nd-L) attend a press conference held by local elders of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem, on May 6, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/ AFP via Getty Images)

Escalation in Jerusalem, Gaza Banging on the Doors of Israeli Coalition Negotiations

But replacing Netanyahu will likely take precedence over other considerations, experts agree

A dramatic development occurred last week in Israeli politics when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned the mandate to form a government to the president, officially acknowledging his failure to generate sufficient support – and opening a path to his replacement.

The mandate was then given to long-time Netanyahu challenger MK Yair Lapid. Since then, the centrist Lapid and his partner, right-wing MK Naftali Bennett, have been working feverishly to form a government.

While the normal obstacles of inflated egos and demands for ministerial positions stand in the way of a new government, it is facing the additional difficulty of forming a bridge between left and far-left parties such as Labor and the predominantly Arab Joint List, and right-wing New Hope and Yamina.

Creating an alliance of any kind that includes Bennett’s Yamina party and the Joint List would be difficult under any circumstances, but recent weeks have seen an ever-increasing level of tension between Arabs and Jews living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The month of Ramadan, now soon over, has been accompanied by repeated clashes between the police and Arab youths near Damascus Gate and elsewhere in east Jerusalem. The struggle was reportedly triggered when police acted to prohibit customary gatherings on the steps outside the gate.

Concomitantly, a phenomenon of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews with a conspicuously Jewish appearance (wearing traditional attire) spread, with videos posted on Palestinian and Arab social media.

Elsewhere in Jerusalem, a legal battle over land purchased by Jews a century and a half ago, on which sit homes built by the Jordanians that have been home to Palestinian families for almost seven decades, has also contributed majorly to the tensions. The District Court in Jerusalem ruled in favor of a right-wing organization and directed that the Palestinian families be evacuated from the houses. The families appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, which will have to decide whether to reconsider the evacuation orders. Meanwhile, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood has become another focal point for clashes between the police, Palestinians and right-wing Israeli activists.

In the West Bank last Sunday, a Palestinian shoot-and-run left three Israeli youth injured, one of whom later died from his wounds.

On Friday, confrontations between Palestinians and the police reached a peak when border police entered the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque compound using stun grenades and tear gas against rioters who were throwing stones and other objects at the forces. Israeli Police stated that this was in response to riots erupting in the compound, while Palestinians claim that the riots were a response to police entrance to the holy site. Border police also entered a mosque within the compound and threw stun grenades in the prayer hall, a rare action on the part of the Israel Police.

On Saturday night, a rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza, striking an open area. The Israeli army attacked a Hamas outpost in retaliation.

The tensions “can definitely influence” the coalitional negotiations, Prof. Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University’s Political Studies Department and an expert on Israel’s Arab parties, told The Media Line.

Because of the problematic nature of the attempted alliance between Right and Left, religiously-inclined and secular parties, Bennett and Lapid are trying to construct an extremely laconic and vague coalition agreement that will be acceptable to everyone, the professor explained.

However, “if Bennett, Lapid and the partners close their eyes to reality, reality doesn’t disappear, it will force itself” on them, he said, and this is what has been happening in recent weeks. The hopeful allies may wish to avoid debating thorny issues such as Jewish-Arab relations, but they are now on their doorstep demanding attention.

Importantly, at present, a Lapid-Bennett government would require the support of the Joint List and United Arab List. “The Joint List will definitely be influenced” by the events, Klein said. So will the United Arab List, an Islamist party, which cannot afford to ignore the events in Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The professor believes that to form a short-lived alliance, one that would exist long enough to dethrone Netanyahu but likely not much beyond that, the Arab parties would be satisfied if Israel’s future conduct in such escalations is given attention as part of the negotiations, and Yamina’s head along with Lapid make some vague declarations on the matter. All for the sake of removing Netanyahu and his Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, which would give the United Arab List and Joint List something to show their electorates in return for supporting the formation of the government.

However, long-term support from the Arab lists after a government is formed would require clear commitments regarding future conduct in such instances, just as a starting point.

Prof. Amal Jamal of the Political Science Department at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Israel’s Arab sector, however, believes that “so long as the situation remains under control” and things do not escalate further, they will likely have no real influence on the coalition negotiations.

“In my estimation, [these events] won’t change the basic stance of the Arab parties regarding the forming of the government, but it certainly does create an atmosphere that makes it harder for them to compromise or present positions that give up on basic demands of the Arab sector,” the professor told The Media Line.

Significantly, escalation would put more pressure on Arab parliamentarians who have pushed for advancing practical Arab interests – such as securing more resources for the sector – over matters relating to the position of Arabs in Israeli society, “including, of course, in Jerusalem, and principally with regards to the holy sites,” Jamal said.

MK Mansour Abbas, who leads the United Arab List, championed the “practical stance” in his campaign running up to the March 23 election, and managed to become central to the coalitional squabbles, but is now in a precarious position trying to satisfy voters angry at the police’s conduct, while remaining a viable partner to right-wing Bennett.

However, “if things calm down over the next few days and there won’t be really militant declarations from either Bennett or Lapid, I don’t think it will matter much,” said the Tel Aviv University expert.

Moreover, Jamal expects the duo to act to ease the difficulties created by the situation by directing a blaming finger at Netanyahu and politicizing the escalation, while at the same time expressing their support for Israel’s police and army forces without justifying their specific actions.

Prof. Dan Avnon, head of the Hebrew University’s Political Science Department, directs attention to the rest of the possible coalition and suggests that the recent violence has two opposing implications.

One kind of influence that can be expected is that it will “strengthen the doubts gnawing at some of the potential partners regarding the support of the Arab parties for the coalition being formed,” he told The Media Line. This is a central point in the debates between the parties, he explained, and the recent clashes highlight the difficulties that can arise from forging any kind of alliance with the Joint List and United Arab List.

Yet at the same time, “we are witnessing the price the country in its entirety pays for the absence of a functioning and stable government … when clear-cut decisions cannot be made,” Avnon said. “The question is which is stronger, the fear of some of a government supported by Arab MKs, or the fear of a dysfunction state” ruled by the current transitional government, “at the head of which sits a premier fighting for his political life.”

Avnon believes the second point will have more weight, thus reinforcing the urge within the forming bloc to compromise.

“I think that it will strengthen [and push them] to go forward because it is clear as day that the country needs a functioning and stable government,” he said.

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