By Ray Hanania
Though replacing hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with another hard-liner in Naftali Bennett might not seem like much of a change, it does demonstrate that nothing lasts forever. That is something that Palestinians should always remember: That the brutality and fanaticism of Israel’s far-right governments of the past two decades can easily change too.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel should ignore the extremists’ rants and recognize that they can bring about change, even if it isn’t the one they would seek in an ideal world.
Change requires work from Israel’s Palestinian population — they need to get involved in the political process, flex their voting muscles and marginalize the extremists, rather than succumb to their anger and thereby marginalize themselves.
One of the key factors in the fall of Netanyahu was the limited but significant involvement of the head of the Arab political party Ra’am, Mansour Abbas. Despite vicious attacks from the extremists, and even some opposition from his own party members, Abbas agreed to join Bennett and Yair Lapid’s coalition to oust Netanyahu and form a new government.
Suddenly, critics have focused on the fact that Abbas is associated with the Islamic Movement that embraces “wasatiyyah” Islam, as if he is the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is behind much of the violence in Egypt and many other Arab countries. But wasatiyyah means “centrist” in Arabic and the party is built on the idea of being in the middle — a moderate position in today’s extremist-dominated political environment.
The whole mission of wasatiyyah Muslims is to advance the moderate voice in the hope of balancing out the extremist and fanatical acts of the far right, which have kept peace in a near-death headlock for decades. Regardless of his religious beliefs and the cheap shots and distorted attacks from his critics, Abbas is smart enough to understand that working from the inside is the only way to change a political system when your community only makes up about 20 percent of the country’s population.
There is a new wave of peace growing in the Middle East; one that even includes extremists like Bennett, who has a record of making racist comments about Palestinians and Arabs. While he may not be much different from Netanyahu in terms of their political rhetoric, he is different in one key respect: Bennett has managed to win the key support of a Palestinian party, giving him the razor-thin advantage needed to oust Netanyahu and form his own ruling coalition.
Although many say that Netanyahu could easily return if this coalition fails, the significance of what has happened puts the former prime minister in great political jeopardy. He faces three corruption indictments and the legal system could start moving more quickly now that he is out of power.
The change in government also creates an opportunity for the pro-peace movement to re-energize itself. It has been dormant for more than two decades following the murder of Yitzhak Rabin by a pro-Netanyahu Jewish settler extremist in November 1995. But last month we witnessed a huge demonstration in East Jerusalem, with Israeli Jews and Palestinians holding hands and demanding justice, fairness and peace.
The recent violence between Israel and Hamas was the result of extremists exploiting the bigger issue of land confiscations from Palestinians — the foundation of the racist and illegal settlement movement. Exploiting the Sheikh Jarrah injustices, like it always does, Hamas fired unguided rockets at Israel to provoke a response and prevent peace. That’s what Hamas does best: Step into the cauldron of conflict and make the situation worse.
Biased mainstream US news outlets contributed to the extremism by skewing their reporting in favor of Israel. Despite a slight increase in the pro-Palestinian and pro-peace coalitions in American politics, their numbers remain small. They say the right things but don’t have the political weight to bring about real change. However, the ousting of Netanyahu could create that change by forming a chasm that undermines the current environment’s extremist dynamics. Abbas is part of that movement, just like the voices of justice in the US Congress, including Rep. Betty McCollum.
This political adjustment was empowered by the pro-peace Jewish and Palestinian protesters — a phenomenon that could threaten not only Israel’s apartheid system but also the suffocating stranglehold extremists have on the peace movement.
Despite the hatred and imbalanced killings — far more Palestinian civilians were killed in the conflict than Israelis — moderates set all the rhetoric aside and held hands while sharing chants of peace as they marched down the streets of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, where the most recent violence first ignited. If Palestinians and Israelis can come together to silence the voices of hate on both sides, they could build a new movement for compromise and peace based on two states.
The outlook wavers between optimism and fatalism, but pushing it toward optimism would re-energize the badly needed dynamic of change and end the political uncertainty that has hovered like a black cloud over a final peace accord under Netanyahu.
That is not to say it will happen. But it could happen. And that is far more than we have had from the failed leadership of the anger-fueling extremists.