What a day in Israeli politics. What a day for Israel. After last year’s elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu cobbled together the narrowest of majorities: a coalition government of 61 seats, the bare minimum needed to govern. This was hardly an ideal situation; the defection of a single coalition member could result in the government falling and new elections. So it was no surprise that, from the moment the coalition was formed, rumors circulated that a new deal was in the works: Prime Minister Netanyahu was said to be in talks with opposition leader Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, the senior partner in the Zionist Union — the second largest Knesset faction — about Labor entering the coalition to form a broad national unity government. In recent weeks, those rumors reached fever pitch, and then the news broke: despite significant internal opposition on both sides, talks were indeed taking place about Labor joining the government.
But yesterday it all fell apart. Instead of turning to Labor, the Prime Minister offered the Defense Ministry to Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party, the only far-right wing party currently in the Opposition. Lieberman, who formerly served as Foreign Minister, is a hardliner who has called for the death penalty for terrorists, for Israel to rid itself of parts of the country in which most Arab Israeli citizens reside, and for the beheading of Arab Israeli citizens who are deemed insufficiently loyal to the state. He has also called for the bombing of Egypt’s Aswan Dam, and for the toppling of the Palestinian Authority.
As I write this, it is still unclear whether or not this latest deal will go through. And some pundits have commented that this all may be an elaborate shot across the bow of the IDF, after the current Defense Minister (no liberal himself) defended the right of the IDF top brass to speak their minds about their concerns over growing racism and extremism in Israeli society. Either way, the political landscape in Israel is once again shifting, and yet another voice of extremism, intolerance, and divisiveness seems poised to assume one of the most powerful positions in the land.
It is against this troubling background that I want to draw your attention, for a moment, from the headlines to the grassroots. Because underneath the radar, tens of thousands of Israelis are working to change their reality, to protect liberal democracy and to build a truly shared society. Aside from newsletters like this one, their stories often go unnoticed and unremarked on. But as you in the NIF community know, their stories are an inspiration, a reason not to give up a hope, and the most powerful antidote I know to the sense of despair that results from just reading the headlines on days like today. In that spirit, I want to share with you a recent op-ed written by my friend Avrum Burg, and his friend Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi. In it, they describe the spirit that animates them, and the thousands of other Israelis working, every day, to build a truly shared society, an Israel that they – and we who support them – can be proud of.