Gaza War Shatters Israel’s New Internal Peace

As Hamas’s deadly rockets fly into Israel and the Israeli military hits back with air strikes inside Gaza, it’s hard to remember that just a week ago, after two years of stalemate, it seemed that Israel might finally have a new government. And that the kingmaker, ironically, would be Raam, a small, Arab, anti-Zionist political party.

With Israel’s election results evenly divided between those supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those seeking to unseat him (the “change bloc,” as they’re called), Raam’s four Knesset would have been enough to determine the balance. Netanyahu had been courting Raam, and its chair, Mansour Abbas, for months, but apparently to no avail. Abbas announced his intention to join with the centrist candidate Yair Lapid and right-of-center Naftali Bennett to put the change bloc in power. Israeli Arabs were about to determine the outcome of elections in the Jewish state.

Despite objections from a fringe of the far-right, many Israelis took pride in how their democracy was functioning and what the emerging coalition said about the improving relationship between Jews and Arabs inside Israel.

Of course, that relationship had never been easy, largely because Israeli Jews and Arabs have such different narratives about what Israel is.

For Jews, Israel is the country they built against all odds as they returned to their ancestral homeland after thousands of years of exile. For Israeli Arabs, it is the country founded by Jews who came from afar, erased Arab hegemony in Palestine and founded a state in which Arabs are de facto second-class citizens. Building a cohesive society with those two competing narratives might have seemed impossible.

Being Israeli has long been discomfiting for Israel’s Arabs for another reason. They, after all, ended up being the fortunate ones. During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, many Arabs in Haifa, Jaffa and elsewhere decided to flee the fighting; their plan was to return home when hostilities subsided. Yet those who fled became refugees, their children and grandchildren still largely stateless in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan or the West Bank. Those who were “unlucky” in 1948 and unable to escape the fighting became Israeli citizens, and their children and grandchildren now have rights and benefits that come with being citizens of a first-world country.

The deep challenges to national unity notwithstanding, many Israelis had recently felt cause for optimism. During the pandemic, Arab doctors and nurses served with great devotion on the front lines. Jews and Arabs alike expressed profound gratitude, and the country basked in a sense of shared purpose.

The Abraham Accords, in which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (followed by Morocco and Sudan) signaled the end of the Arab world’s rejection of Israel, also made matters easier for Israel’s Arabs. No longer would embracing their Israeliness mean betraying the Arab world. Israeli Arabs were also embracing the political process, so much so that they were about to determine who would be the next prime minster.

Now that optimism has been replaced by fury and a sense of betrayal. The war with Hamas has spilled into Israeli cities previously known for their coexistence. Violence between Jews and Arabs has been horrifying. Lynch mobs have formed on both sides. Synagogues have been set afire, bringing to Israel images of pogroms long associated with Europe, not the Jewish state. Businesses have been torched and destroyed. Both Jews and Arabs are fearful for their lives, too terrified to leave their homes.

It’s extremists on both sides, but the divisions are wider and deeper than the small groups of violent actors might suggest.

On the streets of Jaffa, Lod and other cities, the rule of law has frayed, the police (underfunded and leaderless for years) have proved incapable of quelling the violence, and perhaps most tragically, even many moderate Israelis now wonder if they were naive in imagining that Jews and Arabs could share this small country.

While one can understand their sense of betrayal, there is no alternative. Israel’s Arabs represent 20% of Israeli society. They live throughout the country and have no intention of moving anywhere else. Israel — Jewish and Arab — has to fix this.

We know how the battle with Hamas will end. Israel will pummel Gaza until the leadership believes it has bought at least a few years of quiet. We do not know, however, where the fighting between Jews and Arabs on Israel’s streets is headed. Lurching from one tied election to another, with a prime minister under indictment for corruption, has robbed the country of real leadership. Now, the grave danger of that leadership vacuum is painfully evident.

Unless Israelis can again share a compelling vision for what coexistence could look like, and have a leader with the stature to turn that vision to reality, civil unrest could devolve into civil war.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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