Don’t fear the coming Arab surge

With the prospect of the Joint Arab List joining the next coalition, Israel's future is full of possibilities.

March 16, 2015 21:03
3 minute read.

Members of the Joint Arab List gesture during a news conference in Nazareth, January 23. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Although most polls suggest that the representation of Arab parties in the next Knesset will grow only modestly – from the current 11 seats to 13 or so – I believe the number will be higher. But even if the apparent growth is small, the change will matter, with far-reaching implications for the future of Israel’s democracy, identity and history.

The main structural difference in the 20th Knesset will be the merger of the Arab parties into the Joint Arab List.

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Previously, there were three Arab parties (representing Islamists, secularists and communists), with three to four seats each. The Joint List will likely be the third largest in the Knesset, and a force to be reckoned with.

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Ironically, the likely Arab surge grows out of MK Avigdor Liberman’s attempt to exclude Arab parties from the coalition altogether. Under his prodding, the Knesset raised the threshold required for a party to enter the Knesset from three to four seats.

(I’m always amused when someone advocates raising the threshold “to make the Israeli system more like America’s,” which means they haven’t been paying attention to Washington lately.) But Israeli Arabs may have the last laugh. Facing a series of corruption scandals, Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has fallen to 5-6 seats in the polls, which means it is in danger of falling below the threshold it created and out of Israeli political life altogether.

The most important practical question is whether Arab turnout will be closer to that for recent Knesset elections (around 55 percent) or for municipal elections (80% to 90% in most cities and sometimes even higher). If Israeli Arabs can manage to get to the polls at the city elections rate, their representation in the Knesset would grow to 16 or 17 seats or even more. A party of that size could be a kingmaker and decisive influence not only on issues that closely split the Knesset’s Jewish members, but on a host of other issues as well – including the anti-Arab “nation state” bill that nearly passed in the previous Knesset.

Would increased Arab participation in the Knesset be a disaster for Jewish Israelis? I don’t think so.

I’m a Zionist and Israeli citizen whose opinions are center-right (my Middle Eastern politics dovetail closely with those of Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper), yet I welcome more vigorous participation by Arabs in the Israeli political system. While I have written elsewhere that when forced to choose, Israel should opt for independence over democracy, right now Israel isn’t forced to choose. And if Israeli Jews wish to maintain their dominance in the Knesset, they can prioritize voter engagement and turnout just like any other group can.

The policy ramifications of an increased voice for Arabs in the Knesset could be profound. Israeli Arab leaders are likely to push for expedited negotiations to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, of course. But economic changes that may appear mundane on the surface – like increased resources for infrastructure, water and electric power in Arab areas – are the bread-and-butter of any government. Budgeting is a zero-sum game, and upgraded economic conditions in Arab areas could be a game-changer in Israeli society in the long term.

For too long, it’s been easy for Israeli Jews to ignore the fact that one-fifth of our fellow citizens are non-Jews with legal rights that are essentially equal. Ensuring that Arab voices receive commensurate consideration is not only a matter of justice; it can spur a Jewish renewal of passionate engagement in our own self-rule.

So supporters of Israel need to prepare for the influence of Israeli Arabs to swell later this month, but not to be afraid of it. And ethnocentric nationalists like Liberman who have tried to silence the voices of their antagonists should be careful what they wish for.

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