Watching crowds gather in Rabin Square on Monday night to celebrate the end of the Benjamin Netanyahu era felt like watching a Shakespearean tragedy about to begin. King Bibi is dead: long live King Bennett, who boasts of killing Arabs; Defence Minister Gantz, who speaks of ‘bombing Gaza back to the Stone Age’; Ayelet Shaked, who used her first proclamation as Ministry of the Interior to commit to deporting ‘infiltrators’ – a dog whistle for asylum seekers and refugees.
This is no time for celebration. What’s striking about the euphoria around Bibi’s exit from the role of prime minister is that it reveals how little the experiences of Palestinians feature in mainstream Israeli consciousness. You could only find excitement in this new coalition if you don’t believe that Palestinian lives matter.
Ultimately, Netanyahu and the politics of racist ethnonationalism he fermented means that this government is a product of him, not a protest against him. Bennett’s rise is the result of courting the Israeli far-right, which continues to act with impunity. The acts of violence that are a daily occurrence in the occupied territories—the torching of Palestinian farmland, the attacks on communities, the arrests and indefinite detention of activists by Israeli forces—have spilled into ’48 Israel over the last month, and outside small pockets of the Israeli left, these events barely feature in conversations about the country’s future.
Labour and Yesh Atid, perhaps out of desire to give this bi-partisanship a go, or perhaps out of desire to shore up their own power and premiership, will likely not challenge measures that further dispossess Palestinians from their land, erode their rights, or increase the authoritarian practices of surveillance and detention against their communities. Why should they? Palestinians under occupation or in East Jerusalem can’t vote anyway.
The willingness of so-called progressives—like Lapid, Michaeli, and even the left-leaning Meretz—to do deals with Bennett et al. is a clear signal that ending occupation is not a priority. The sacrifice they have made for power are the rights and livelihoods of Palestinians all over Israel and in the occupied territories: it is a tacit acceptance that ending the apartheid regime that exists here, from the river to the sea, is not something we can or should expect in the coming years.
When we talk about Israel, the issues of occupation, of the Nakba, and of inequity between Jews and Arabs are presented as something separate to the structures of the state. Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid compatriots constantly discuss the need to fix Israel’s ‘internal’ issues—economic disparity, housing, post-pandemic recovery—but in an apartheid state, the capacity to distinguish between domestic issues and occupation is one solely afforded to Jewish residents.
Debate about the term ‘apartheid’ often rests on detailing the experiences of Palestinians: ‘Palestinian citizens can vote’, ‘there are Palestinian parties in the Knesset’, and so on. As pointed out by B’tselem in their recent report, this is the wrong focus.
The validity of the term ‘apartheid’ should instead rest on the day-to-day reality of those who hold power. No matter where an Israeli Jew lives—in Tel Aviv, in the radical outpost of Givat Maon in the South Hebron Hills, or in Silwan in East Jerusalem—their rights, liberties, and priorities are the same. This is simply not the case for the Palestinians who also reside in or around these areas. There is no separation between domestic issues or occupation: one is inherently tied to the other.
Bibi’s ousting could certainly help with Israel’s PR problem, the illusion of progress obfuscating Israel’s ongoing violence towards Palestinians. Milestones that are small in relative terms—the ‘most diverse’ coalition, the most women MKs, the sensible grownups of a ‘bi-partisan’ government—and will satisfy international diplomats, who can rest easy in the notion that Israel’s problems lay with the recalcitrant Netanyahu, and not with the fundamental tenets of Zionism, settler colonialism, and ethno-nationalism.
But as put so clearly by activist Mohammed El-Kurd, you cannot expect justice from the perpetrators of injustice. The radical right have not only been emboldened by the likes of the new Prime Minister: they have also been mainstreamed. Kahanists sit in the Knesset, and those who commit war crimes are lauded as heroes. Less than three days into the coalition’s tenure, Israel was once again bombing Gaza.
And while world leaders will wring their hands and mumble about the need to give this government a chance to find its feet, that violent status quo will continue. There is, of course, also a risk that things will get worse: the Right’s anger at Bennett’s decision to partner with centre and left-wing parties means that he may feel the need to ‘prove’ his ultra-nationalist credentials.
The first test of this tremulous coalition was the March of the Flags. Racist Jewish supremacists descended on East Jerusalem and the Old City, chanting ‘death to Arabs’ and ‘a good Arab is a dead Arab’, while Palestinian residents were forcibly expelled from the area by military police. The March was approved by Labour member and minister Omer Bar-Lev, who was then congratulated by his colleague, Transport Minister Mairav Michaeli, for ensuring ‘a peaceful’ procession through the old city. How anyone could declare such an event ‘peaceful’ yet again proves the notion that underlies everything here: Palestinians don’t count.
It does feel like a change has taken place since last month’s assault on Gaza – just not in government. The fortification of Palestinian liberation as part of the international struggle for freedom and justice signals a shift at the grassroots level in how Israel’s actions are viewed and how, perhaps, they will be held to account. And the small yet growing movements of Jewish-Palestinian solidarity continue to undercut the idea that fighting for Jewish liberation and Palestinian freedom must be mutually exclusive endeavours.
A vision of what this land needs to become—a place where human rights and dignity are upheld, and where everyone is free—feels in some ways more possible than it did even a few months ago. But will this coalition government be on the right side of that struggle? I won’t hold my breath.