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Lapid-Bennett Government May Be First Step to Healing Israel’s Jewish-Arab Rift

Israeli politics experienced a small earthquake on Sunday, when lawmaker Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, declared that he will be partnering with centrist lawmaker Yair Lapid and the coalition Lapid is building to form a new government. If the duo manages to realize their goal of a unity government, they will not only put the brakes on Israel’s seemingly endless cycle of elections over the past two years, they also will end Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 12-year iron grip on the premiership.

Another noteworthy occurrence is tied to this possible government: it will most likely be formed with the help of an Arab party. According to the Israeli business daily Globes, an Arab party hasn’t voted in support of a new Israeli government since 1995. As a rule, the Arab parties in the country have usually refused to cooperate with Israeli government coalitions. But the Ra’am-United Arab List split before last March’s elections from the Joint List – which includes several Arab factions – with the outspoken intention of supporting whichever side emerges victorious if it ensures certain civic demands required by the Arab sector are met.

In accordance with its campaign’s stated goals, Ra’am’s demands, according to several reports, revolve mainly around civic matters. The party is requesting funding for educational and infrastructure projects for the Arab sector, and continued government investment in developing the sector’s financial strength. They also are asking for the budget needed to fight crime and violence in Arab society in Israel, for which many have paid with their lives. Further, the party is demanding that several steps be taken to ease the housing crisis in the Arab sector. This means recognizing what are currently unrecognized Arab villages, generating plans for enlarging Arab cities and annulling or changing the “Kaminitz law,” a modification to existing legislation that empowers the state in its fight against illegal construction. The modification has been under attack by Arab parties which say that it disproportionately harms Arab citizens living in towns that lack a municipal master plan, which is necessary for building legally.

I think that a government that includes elements from the left – such as Meretz and the Labor Party – will want to justify sitting with Bennett as prime minister, and will want to take care of problems ailing the Arab sector

In addition to Ra’am, the proposed Bennett-Lapid government will include two left-wing parties, Meretz and Labor.

Amjad Shbita, the co-executive director of Sikkuy, an Israeli organization fighting for civic equality, said that the government will likely focus more on issues affecting Arabs in Israeli society not only because of Ra’am’s involvement but also because of the presence of the left-wing parties in the government.

“I think that a government that includes elements from the left – such as Meretz and the Labor Party – will want to justify sitting with Bennett as prime minister, and will want to take care of problems ailing the Arab sector … At least with regard to purely civic topics that aren’t at the center of a major [political] disagreement, it will be relatively attentive to the Arab population,” he told The Media Line.

Shbita draws a distinction between the advancement in civic equality and resource allocation on one hand and national realization on the other. An example of an issue tied to the second topic is Israel’s “nation-state law,” which designates Israel as the nation-state solely of the Jewish nation. The law has drawn harsh criticism from the Arab sector in Israel.

Shbita says that the government – which will include both right-wing and left-wing parties – won’t be able to address such controversial issues as national identity without crumbling.

“In some issues, progress may really be achieved,” he said, “I think that a government such as this could truly make a more significant effort to treat the issue of violence, for example.” However, Shbita stresses, without addressing the national topics of contention, a significant change in the life of Arab citizens cannot be expected.

Recent weeks have seen an eruption of violence throughout Israel. Several Jews were lynched by bands of Arab men. An Arab man was shot in Lod by a Jewish man who later claimed self-defense, and another Arab man was severely beaten by right-wing Jews in Bat Yam. A large amount of public and private property was vandalized, and at least ten synagogues were lit on fire. Shbita says that the violence, which followed after clashes between Israel Police and Muslims in Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, highlight the fact that Israel’s Arab population hasn’t put its national demands aside.

Progressing in the civic realm, without treating the national concerns of Arabs in Israel, Shbita says, would be like laying this advancement on top of an “explosives barrel that could explode at any moment.”

Dr. Salim Brake, a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel and an expert on Arab society in Israel, is more optimistic regarding the change possible with the new government. However, he also points to the left-wing parties, which will have ministers in the government, rather than to Ra’am, to help improve the Arab sector. Brake is highly critical of Ra’am’s prioritization of civic issues over national matters, describing it as accepting that Arabs be treated as second-class citizens in Israel for the sake of budgets and other advancements that do not deal with the principal issues.

“I’m not counting only on the fact that Arabs will influence the forming of the government,” Brake told The Media Line, “but I look also at the people that are going to be ministers in this government. I’m very optimistic about some of them.”

Brake says that “this government is directed at … doing things that will integrate the different sectors of [Israeli] society.” This will at first lead to a break from the actions and rhetoric of the previous government, which he classifies as racist and discriminatory. In its place, he expects “a great change for the better, first of all with regard to the atmosphere, and later on, we will see changes on the ground.”

Shbita, speaking of the great tension between Jews and Arabs following the violence of recent weeks, says that the passing of time will bring greater calm. To truly bring peace between the populations, he says, the issues that stood behind the escalation – such as the legal dispute in Sheikh Jarrah that is threatening to evacuate Palestinians from houses in the east Jerusalem neighborhood – need to be resolved.

Brake, however, thinks that the change in atmosphere, which may trickle down to the different mixed Arab-Jewish municipalities, could make a great difference. Speaking of the not-yet-announced new government, he said, “I know that the people coming in don’t see the Arabs as the enemy, but see us all as citizens in one country. I think that the atmosphere will improve significantly, and sometimes, [a change] in the mood takes you halfway” toward the destination.