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A Jewish-Palestinian political coalition failed. Could it work in the future?


With another election ahead, Israel is debating the legacy of a political experiment in parliament that just fell apart. Can Jewish nationalists and Palestinian citizens actually share power? NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: For the first time in Israeli history, an Arab political party helped build the governing coalition, breaking what was a taboo for many Arab and Jewish lawmakers. It lasted one year.


MANSOUR ABBAS: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "We've only just started," said Mansour Abbas, the leader of the conservative Muslim party in the coalition, on Israeli TV when the coalition fell apart. He said, I think the entire Israeli public will now look and see there is historic hope that we should not give up on. What he branded as a partnership of hope is a partnership that collapsed. First, his party suspended its membership in the coalition when Israeli police stormed protesters at the Al-Aqsa mosque. The party rejoined, but then another issue caused chaos in parliament.


ESTRIN: Palestinian member of the party refused to vote to renew legal protections for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. A Jewish nationalist lawmaker sparked a shouting match. Some declared the experiment had failed.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: Including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He's blamed it on, quote, "the Muslim Brotherhood." I asked Netanyahu's right-wing party member, Danny Danon, if an Arab political party can ever be again in a governing coalition.

DANNY DANON: You know, I'm not optimistic about it. It will require strong leadership that will be able to put aside all the radical ideology and to decide that they are actually promoting, you know, domestic issues.

ESTRIN: The Islamist party does not consider itself radical to oppose the occupation of Palestinian non-citizens in the West Bank. The party was even willing to downplay that issue to work on getting bigger budgets for its community. It argued it's easier to fight for that when you're close to power. But being close to power is controversial in their community. Palestinian lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman didn't join the coalition because she thinks parliament reflects the power dynamics for Arab citizens in the country.

AIDA TOUMA-SULEIMAN: The kind of partnership they keep talking about between Jews and Arabs, it's a partnership of those who are controlling and those who are under control.

ESTRIN: Left-wing, Jewish politician Mossi Raz was in the coalition and says even though it eventually failed, the experiment was important.

MOSSI RAZ: We want to work together. And this is different from the past that the Palestinians and Jews did not want to work together. You could not find Palestinians and Jews to work together in a coalition. This is first time that it happens.

ESTRIN: Micah Goodman, an Israeli philosopher who's advised Israel's leaders, says what matters was that three right-wing, Jewish party leaders were willing to partner with Mansour Abbas, the Muslim party leader.

MICAH GOODMAN: All three of them sat with Abbas, worked with Abbas and legitimized Abbas. That's powerful, but it's messy. It wasn't smooth. Not all the people in the Arab community liked this. And not all the people in the right-wing communities really accepted this. But it's the beginning of a dramatic shift in Israel.

ESTRIN: He says, for one year in Israel, the government went against the currents of history and against a worldwide trend of politics that polarized countries.

GOODMAN: And it was one hell of an experiment.

ESTRIN: But with elections in November, right-wing Netanyahu is seeking a comeback as prime minister and says he wouldn't repeat the experiment.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.