By: Eliyahu Kamisher and Adam Rasgon
Starting a commotion is not unusual for Jamal Zahalka, a notorious firebrand politician in the Israeli Knesset. He has been kicked out of the Knesset multiple times for controversial statements aimed mostly at his center-right and far-right counterparts in the Israeli parliament. However, in early September, Zahalka took aim at a far less likely opponent, MK Stav Shaffir, a member of the center-left Zionist Union party and typically known for her focus on social justice and equality. Zahalka harshly chastised Shafir, calling her a “racist” who “ignores the existence of [Arab-Israelis].” Zahalka went on to state that the Labor party “is the mother and father of racism” and that “The people who took our land, who expelled us, weren’t the ones who chant ‘death to Arabs.’ They’re the ones who said ‘we’re bringing peace to you.’” In Zahalka’s opinion, the real enemy is not right-wing parties but the center-left Zionist Union party.
The irony of Zahalka’s scathing rebuke is apparent. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exhorted his supporters to get out the vote on election day claiming that Arab-Israelis were pouring into the voting booths and thus threatening the future of his right wing government. Netanyahu quickly came under fire for his statements, with leaders from both the Joint List and the Zionist Union uniting in accusations of racism. Issac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, characterized Netanyahu’s remarks as “the most fraudulent and racist utterances that exist.” Shaffir also responded saying, “We will not stay silent about racist rants.”
However, the pre-election cooperation that saw a united opposition facing down Netanyahu and his coalition has crumbled and wavered in a post-election reality. And the Joint list has recently cooperated with the very prime minister it castigated for racism.
Threatening a general strike of the Arab sector, members of the Joint List met with PM Netanyahu on September 3rd putatively to outline their demands, namely pertaining to budgetary appropriations. The meeting scheduled for 45 minutes lasted much longer than an hour and a half and the Joint List members emerged from the meeting telling reporters that it had been very successful. Ayman Oudeh, the head of the Joint List hailed the meeting saying, “It was a very positive meeting and most of the demands of the local Arab authorities were accepted.” Even Masoud Ghneim, the Joint List member affiliated with the Islamic Movement praised the meeting remarking, “Netanyahu responded positively to the issue of immediate budgetary assistance. 400 million Shekels will be transferred to the local Arab authorities.”
This successful outcome led members of the Zionist Union to suspect the Joint List had secretly struck a deal with Prime Minister Netanyahu in exchange for not attending the controversial gas deal vote. Specifically MKs Stav Shafir and Michal Biran suggested that such a deal had been struck and Shafir sent a letter to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein demanding an investigation.
Ultimately the Joint List voted against the gas deal, which most opposition parties criticized as benefitting big businesses. However, the Joint List votes were unnecessary as the gas deal passed in a 59-51 vote.
Yet, the recent Shaffir-Zahalka spat is just the most visible of a growing list of differences between Israel’s two largest opposition parties. In June the Zionist Union left the Knesset in mass ahead of a vote to extend a law that limits Palestinian family reunifications. The Joint List strongly opposed the extension and perceived the Zionist Union to be abandoning the opposition. Ahmad Tibi, a leading member of the Joint List, argued that the Zionist Union’s no vote proves that it has no moral high ground to chastise Arab MKs.
In September the Zionist Union also threw its support with Likud behind an anti-terror law sponsored by MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. MK Tzipi Livni, a key figure in the Zionist Union leader, argued that her party cannot compromise with the Joint List on certain core issues. She said,“[Being] in the opposition does not mean that we will make deals with you [Joint List] at the expense of our worldview and values. The fact that we are together in the opposition will not cause us to give up on things we believe in.”
Prior to the elections last March, Isaac Herzog suggested that he would not count the Joint List out of any future coalition. However, more than six months later, with a host of fundamental differences surfacing, a viable Zionist Union-Joint List coalition seems nearly impossible. Israel’s second largest opposition party has made clear it does not see itself as part of the center-left opposition and will act independently, if necessary. While the Joint List eventually voted against the gas deal, it still harbors intense policy-related and ideologically-rooted differences with the Zionist Union.
Although the Zionist Union would greatly appreciate a unified opposition that could stand as a bulwark against Netanyahu and champion center-left policies, it should expect a continuation of patchwork politics, cooperating with the Joint List on certain issues and disagreeing on others. It should be no surprise if the Joint List cooperates with the Likud to secure its interests ignoring that of the Zionist Union and other opposition parties in the future.
Eli Kamisher is an independent journalist based in Tel Aviv, Israel and Adam Rasgon is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Review.
Photo Credit: Photographed by Lisa Goldman, distributed by Flickr Commons