My dream about Israeli-Arab voters
The focus of the vocal Arab political sector is not economic or social advancement within Israel.
Israeli-Arab man casts his vote [file photo] Photo: Ammar Awad / Reuters
The other night I had a dream in which Arab voters were flocking to the polls
and exercising political clout commensurate with their percentage within the
Israeli population. In this dream, Arab parties emphasized mainstream issues of
housing, education and employment and regularly engineered a vigorous
Their capacity to garner 20 percent of the vote
– potentially 20 or more Knesset seats – created a common interest with a
Center-Left block of Israeli parties.
A Center-Left bloc expanded by
these mainstream Arab parties offered a chance of ousting the
Netanyahu-controlled coalition and shifting governmental priorities from the
territories back to the Galilee and Negev while promoting negotiations toward a
two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians. In my fantasy
coalition, the Arab parties could extract concessions meeting socio-economic
needs of the Arab sector, much like Shas has done for its constituency in recent
The subconscious origins of my dream are easy to
trace. I grew up in the US of the 1950s and 1960s, when African-Americans,
though only 18% of the population, launched a nonviolent movement against
oppressive, discriminatory conditions in housing, education and employment.
Blacks in their campaign utilized the courts (starting with Brown
Board of Education in 1954 invalidating separate public facilities),
legislation (for example, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawing invidious
employment discrimination) and vigorous voter registration to promote minority
interests by electing sympathetic representatives to Congress, state
legislatures and city mayoralties.
While such African-American ballot box
efforts have not eliminated the overall social disadvantage of
African-Americans, enormous advances have been made in creating educational and
employment opportunity for black Americans (witness the elections of Barack
Obama). In the course of the struggle for African-American rights, there were
dissident voices calling for separatist government or even violent resistance to
the white-dominated political system.
But black Americans rejected the
demagogues like Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver in favor of the
nonviolent, integrationist path of Martin Luther King. That successful history
was doubtless the source of my recent dream.
THEN I awoke to the reality
of the Israeli political scene. The focus of the vocal Arab political sector is
not economic or social advancement within Israel.
The voices of Arab
political figures are stridently raised to condemn all Israeli conduct that
harms the interests of the Palestinian residents of Gaza and the West Bank.
Though Israel’s entire southern population had for years been bombarded by
thousands of rockets, missiles and mortars from Gaza, Israeli Arab politicians
treated Operation Cast Lead (and later Operation Pillar of Defense) as though
they were unprovoked assaults.
This lack of empathy with their fellow
Israeli citizens in the south is jarring; even the notoriously unbalanced
Goldstone Report acknowledged that Hamas had precipitated “terror within the
[Israeli] civilian population,” causing high rates of trauma especially among
children, and hundreds of injuries. (Indeed, because Hamas’ rockets had
been purposefully and indiscriminately aimed at civilian targets, the Goldstone
Report denominated them as war crimes.)
Nor do reigning Arab politicians promote
the common social interest in increased social services by promoting either
compulsory or voluntary national service. While increasing numbers of young
Israeli Arabs do volunteer for national service, their political leaders have
discouraged the phenomenon. The atmosphere created by hostile rejection of
Israeli institutions is one in which a Muslim IDF soldier from an Arab village
must hide his uniform and weapon when returning home in order to avoid abuse and
threats from neighbors.
In the contemporary Israeli scene, Arab voters
have not come close to exercising their potential political clout as 20% of the
electorate. In 2009, only 53% of Israeli Arabs voted, succeeding in electing 12
Knesset members (as opposed to the potential 20 or more); those elected then
largely marginalized themselves by their strident rhetoric. (Of course, some
Arab voters support Center-Left Israeli parties in the thus far vain hope that
those parties will become responsive to Arab sector social and economic
This phenomenon of failing parliamentary representation has
not gone unnoticed within the Israeli Arab community. In the current electoral
race, two fledgling parties are seeking to rally Arab voters to elect Arab
representatives with a focus on mainstream issues of improved housing, education
and jobs while coexisting within Israeli society. An Israeli Arab party, called
Hope for Change, is headed by a Beduin named Atef Krenawi (who was formerly
associated with the Likud Party). Another party, called Da’am, is headed by an
Arab woman, Asma Agbaria Zahalka, and emphasizes social equality and workers’
But if I were to wake up on January 23 and discover that either
of these fledgling parties had passed the 2% threshold for Knesset
representation, I would think I was dreaming again – just fantasizing that
Israeli Arabs would embrace parliamentary struggle to advance their sectoral
interests along with the general welfare of the State of Israel.
Cantor is Distinguished Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Rutgers University Law
School, Newark. He now lives in Tel Aviv and his op-ed articles, many focused on
Israeli-American issues, have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, The Times
of Israel, and the Faculty Forum of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. His
blog is http://seekingfairness.wordpress.com