There are many ways to understand what is happening today between Hamas and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, but I prefer to think about it like this: They are each having their own Jan. 6 moment.
Just as a mob was unleashed by President Donald Trump to ransack our Capitol on Jan. 6 in a last-ditch effort to overturn the election results and prevent a healing unifier from becoming president, so Bibi and Hamas each exploited or nurtured their own mobs to prevent an unprecedented national unity government from emerging in Israel — a cabinet that for the first time would have included Israeli Jews and Israeli Arab Muslims together.
Like Trump, both Bibi and Hamas have kept power by inspiring and riding waves of hostility to “the other.” They turn to this tactic anytime they are in political trouble. Indeed, they each have been the other’s most valuable partner in that tactic ever since Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996 — on the back of a wave of Hamas suicide bombings.
No, Hamas and Bibi don’t talk. They don’t need to. They each understand what the other needs to stay in power and consciously or unconsciously behave in ways to ensure that they deliver it.
The latest rerun of their long-running nasty show is happening now because both were staring at an amazing breakthrough shaping up between Israeli Jews and Israel Arab Muslims — and, like the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6, they wanted to destroy the possibility of political change before it could destroy them politically.
To understand why I am so convinced of this, I need to take you back about 10 days to the column I was writing before this blowup happened. It began with me reminding readers that I watch trends in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict very closely, because I believe their struggle often foreshadows wider trends in Western politics — not unlike what Off Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff — airline hijacking, suicide bombing, building a wall, lone-wolf terrorism — gets perfected there first and then comes to Broadway.
What I was about to write just 10 days ago was: “Hey, folks! Look what’s opening Off Broadway! Maybe it will come to America!”
And this is what was opening: In the wake of Israel’s fourth election, and Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, an unprecedented national unity coalition was taking shape in Israel — under the leadership of the secular-centrist Yair Lapid and the religious-rightist Naftali Bennett. They were on the verge of forging a cabinet that would include both Israeli Jews and, for the first time ever, an Israeli Arab Islamist party.
Here is the headline in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper online from last Sunday, May 9, just before the latest Hamas-Israel conflict erupted in full: “Israel Coalition Talks: Bennett’s Party Expects to Form Gov’t ‘This Week,’ After Meeting With Islamist Leader.”
The story went on to say that, “Bennett met with United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas Sunday, leading members of his party to believe that a government may be formed ‘this week,’ ending Israel’s political deadlock after four elections in under two years.”
The United Arab List, also known as Raam, headed by Mansour Abbas is an Israeli Arab “Islamic movement” party that comes from the same broad realm of political Islam that Hamas does, except that it is nonviolent; recognizes Israel; and is focused on getting Israeli Arabs — particularly Muslim Bedouins — more resources, more police and more jobs for their towns and neighborhoods in Israel, just the way ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli parties do.
Abbas had broken away from the coalition of Israeli Arab parties — the Joint List, which is more focused on Palestinian nationalism — and won four seats on his own to push his agenda. And since neither Netanyahu’s coalition nor the opposition coalition that was emerging, led by Lapid and Bennett, had enough votes to form a government, Abbas’s four seats made him the kingmaker of Israeli politics. Netanyahu tried to court him at first, but a small openly racist, anti-Arab faction in Bibi’s coalition (Bibi’s Proud Boys) refused to sit in a cabinet with Israeli Arabs.
That is what gave this emerging opposition national unity coalition an opportunity to put together a broad government that for the first time ever would have included right-wing pro-settler Zionist parties, left-wing secular progressive parties and a pro-Islamist Israeli Arab party — and possibly, eventually, even secular Arab parties.
It would have broken the mold of Israeli politics forever. And that is why the local Jan. 6-style opponents — in Israel and Hamas — were determined to blow it up.
Otherwise, it might lead to more progress and integration between Jews and Arabs, and attempts to address unemployment and humiliation, especially among Israeli Arab youth, and not to aggravate them.
Governing matters. And who leads a government matters — especially in relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Think about this: During the pandemic, in March 2020, Haaretz reported that it was Israeli Arab medical workers who were essential for enabling Israel’s Jewish citizens to survive the coronavirus. “According to official figures … 17 percent of Israel’s physicians, 24 percent of its nurses and 47 percent of its pharmacists are Arabs,” it noted.
So, the next time someone tells you that Israel is a purely racist, anti-Arab country, think about those numbers. But the next time someone tells you that Israel is a paradise for its Arab citizens and that they should have nothing to complain about, think about this quote from that Haaretz story. It’s from Dr. Suad Haj Yihye Yassin, who had returned from a long shift saving Israeli Arabs and Jews from Covid-19 at her Tel Aviv hospital and had just heard Netanyahu rule out forming a government that included Israeli Arabs.
“When I come home from the emergency room, after I’ve given my all to treat everyone,” she said, “and hear the prime minister say that we have to form a national unity government to deal with the crisis — but without the Arabs, as if we are second-rate citizens — it hurts. Why is it OK for us to be on the front lines in the hospitals dealing with corona, but not legitimate for us to be in the government?”
That is why it was so important to have a true national unity coalition governing Israel, ending Netanyahu’s 12-year reign as prime minister and fundamentally challenging Hamas’s narrative that the only hope for Israeli Arabs is the destruction of the Jewish state.
And that is why the column I was working on last Monday was planning to say, “Hey, folks! Look what is playing Off Broadway! Maybe that can come to Broadway!”
I was going to tie it together with Liz Cheney’s courageous stand against Donald Trump’s Big Lie and wonder aloud if a breakaway faction of Republicans might one day work with the center-left Biden to actually heal post-pandemic America and help pass the legislation we need to thrive in the 21st century.
But then, around 10 a.m., one of my editors called to ask me what I thought about the fighting that had just erupted inside Israel between Israelis and Palestinians and between Hamas and Israel — and shouldn’t I think about writing an emergency column on that?
I realized that it was impossible to ignore. But in that column last Monday I warned that Netanyahu — who is desperate to stay in power and avoid possibly going to prison if he is convicted in his current corruption trial — was not above “inflaming the situation so much that his right-wing rivals have to abandon trying to topple him and declare instead that this is no time for a change in leadership.”
And within 48 hours of fighting that is exactly what happened. Bibi frightened Bennett away from forming a coalition with an Israeli Arab party, not to mention centrist and progressive Israelis, and Mansour Abbas was put in an impossible situation by Hamas by looking like he was collaborating with Israeli Jews who were hammering Palestinians from Jerusalem to Gaza.
Netanyahu’s far-right followers, and the police, went way too far in antagonizing and cracking down on Palestinians in Jerusalem right at one of the most sensitive moments — Muslim holy days at the end of Ramadan and after the Palestinian Authority decided to postpone elections. The rage of the Jerusalem Palestinians added fuel not only to violence in that city, but also kindled the strife between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews across Israeli towns — which is really, really dangerous for Israel’s stability.
Meanwhile, Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader, seems to have gotten totally intoxicated with the idea that by lobbing Hamas rockets into Jerusalem, in the midst of Jewish-Arab clashes there, he could in one move take over the whole Palestinian cause — sidelining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Jordan and all the Arab states. Big mistake.
Attacking Jerusalem with rockets crossed a huge Israeli red line and prompted the Israeli Army to deal a serious blow to Hamas’s tunnel grids all over Gaza and to its munitions factories, and generally amplify the misery of life there under Hamas. In doing so, the Israeli Army was also sending a message to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Do not think you can out-crazy us. Pay attention: We will not be deterred by global public opinion in Gaza or Lebanon if you threaten us with missiles.
I wish that I could say that any of this will produce a profound rethinking by Bibi or Hamas, but I doubt it. For the last 12 years Bibi has had one mission — to keep Hamas and the Palestinian Authority weak and divided so that he could come to the U.S. Congress every year and say, “Oh, gosh, I’d love to make peace, but we have no partner on the other side. The Palestinians are weak and divided.”
And for 12 years Hamas has had one mission: to keep Netanyahu in power so Hamas and its backers in Iran could tell their naïve supporters in Europe, on liberal college campuses, in the media and in the Democratic Party that the problem is not Hamas — an Islamo-fascist organization without a shred of democratic fiber that is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state and imposing a Tehran-like Islamic regime in Palestine — but rather that terrible pro-settler Netanyahu government in Israel.
Bibi and Hamas: They need each other. They understand each other. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
For a brief shining moment it looked as though a different Israeli coalition might be coming together to break that cycle. It certainly would not have made peace overnight, but it might at least have begun a different dialogue — a real dialogue, among all sides.
Instead, we got a Jan. 6 moment — one that, for now, has succeeded in stopping the chance of political transformation. My only hope is that this failure of the emerging coalition for national unity Off Broadway is not a harbinger of what is coming to Broadway: “Donald Trump — The Sequel.”