What coalition building in Israel is accidentally teaching us

An uneasy alliance l-r: Yair Lapid,
Naftali Bennett, Mansour Abbas

By JAMIE MICHAELS The signatures are on paper. The ink is drying. The reign of King Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minster, may be at an end. The only guarantee in Israeli politics is that there are no guarantees—der mentsh trakht un Got lakht.

In the 11th hour, Yair Lapid, the leader of the aptly named “change government” declared to President Rueven Rivlin that he had succeeded in forming a government. Time will tell if he is correct. Lapid is stitching together unlike parts. He’ll need exactly the right amount of electricity to bring them to life.
Mansour Abbas is Israel’s most interesting dentist. For decades, Arab and Jewish political parties have lived in separate realities. Arab parties have rejected partaking in and normalizing a system they believe oppresses Arab and Palestinian voices. Jewish parties have had little interest in dialogue with Arab nationalists whom they view as existentially threatening to Israel’s Jewish identity. The impasse seemed unbridgeable. Luckily, Abbas is used to pulling teeth. His Ra’am party has left behind traditional divides, advocating for the interests of Arab-Israeli society as opposed to larger questions of Palestinian nationalism. Ra’am entered the Knesset on a platform of fixing infrastructure, tackling organized crime, and legalizing unrecognized Bedouin villages. If the change government is formed, Ra’am will be the first Arab party in the history of Israel to join a ruling coalition.

On Monday, June 7th the Knesset Speaker will schedule a potential swearing in, one the world will watch to see if the new government can pass a vote of confidence. The coalition’s margins—61 of 120 members of the Knesset—are beyond thin. The precariousness of the new government’s position is eclipsed only by the range of its members’ differences. Including Ra’am, the change government is comprised of eight parties that span the political spectrum, from the dovish Meretz to the hawkish Yamina. If Netanyahu can siphon a single vote, the country will be plunged into its fifth round of elections in four years.
The inclusion of Abbas in this government has not gone unopposed. Hundreds of picketers mobilized outside the hotel where the coalition negotiations took place, challenging the idea that an Islamist party should be part of government. What these protestors failed to realize is that Arab-Israelis comprise over 20% of the country.
For decades, their needs have been systemically ignored by the Jewish majority. Now, like the Haredim, they are learning to play politics. Ra’am supporters don’t want to push the Jews into the sea. They want new schools, upgraded roads, and equality under the law— and, if this new government actually takes root - they’re off to a roaring start. In the haggling over coalition building, Ra’am has secured a commitment of roughly 20 billion dollars (CD) in development funding to help level the playing field. Addressing long standing inequality in the Arab sector will create a safer and more secure Israel for all of its citizens.

The strangest accident of Israel’s unstable coalition system is that it’s making us talk to each other. You don’t need to be a yeshiva graduate to know that Israelites are a stiff-necked people. For the change government to succeed, both Jewish and Arab Israelis will need to turn their heads and listen. The quirks of coalition negotiations are demanding unprecedented conversations between disparate world views. Regardless of the necessity of circumstance, it’s an opportunity for dialogue—dialogue the country has been putting off for far too long. The potential departure of Netanyahu has already opened space for new voices. Paradoxically, Israel’s fractured electoral system may be the long-needed catalyst to begin the process of unifying the country’s disparate tribes. There will be portions of Ra’am’s platform that will be untenable for many Israelis. The same holds true for Yamina and Meretz. Listening to the ideas and policies of others, even those we will ultimately reject, holds value. At a societal level, coalition building is offering Israelis the chance to get to know each other. The success of Israel’s democracy depends on this process continuing to yield common ground. The only alternative—the perpetual ballot box—is no alternative at all.