Reality check: Liberman’s gift to Israel’s Arabs

The rise of the Joint List could prove a much-needed antidote to racism

March 29, 2015 21:23
4 minute read.

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


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With little to celebrate following Benjamin Netanyahu’s startling election victory, one has to grab whatever crumbs of comfort are left – the largest of which is the demise of Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party on the one hand, and the rise of the Joint List Arab party on the other.

In one of the most striking political ironies of recent times, Liberman’s brutal attempt to deny Israel’s Arab citizens any substantial representation in the Knesset by spearheading legislation last year which raised the electoral threshold from two to 3.25 percent, Liberman is singlehandedly responsible for unifying the previously disparate Arab parties into the Joint List.

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If the 3.25% threshold had existed for the last Knesset, neither Hadash nor Balad would have crossed the finishing line, which is what spurred Liberman on.

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When pushing for the change, Liberman wrongly assumed that the different Arab parties with their distinct and contrary ideologies – communist, Arab nationalist and Islamist – would be able to take the pragmatic decision to put their rivalries to one side and unite behind the common purpose of ensuring a strong Arab presence in the Knesset.

This gross political miscalculation on Liberman’s part has resulted in an overall growth of two Knesset seats for the Arab parties and the fact that the Joint List is now the third-largest faction in Israel’s parliament, behind the Likud and Zionist Union, rightly reflecting Israel’s sizeable Arab minority.

And even better: Liberman’s own party, which has been based on attacking Israel’s Arab minority, took a huge hammering at the polls, dropping from 13 seats to six, fatally crushing any dreams Liberman might have had of one day becoming the leader of the Israeli Right. Just as Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliya sectoral Russian party crashed and burned in the space of a few elections, the same is looking true for Yisrael Beiteinu as the younger generation of “Russian” voters become part of the mainstream.

When promoting the Governance Law which raised the electoral threshold, Liberman argued that Israel’s system suffered from too many small parties who wielded inordinate influence when it came to coalition building. This multiplicity of small parties, he stressed, weakened the ability of the country’s leading party to rule and their political power needed to be curtailed.

Funnily enough, now that he is the leader of a small party with only six seats, we’re no longer hearing this argument from Liberman, who even has the chutzpah to demand the defense portfolio, the number two spot in government, in return for joining Netanyahu’s next coalition.

The prime minister may be extremely foolhardy in terms of his willingness to damage the Israel-US relationship, but when it comes to military matters he normally exhibits sensible caution. This should ensure that Liberman, who once during a dispute with Egypt talked of bombing the Aswan Dam, gets nowhere near the levers of military power.

OF COURSE , Liberman is not the only politician to revert to racism when seeking votes. Netanyahu’s despicable election day “warning” to his supporters that “the Arabs are voting in droves” highlights just how deep the divisions run in our society and how shameless Netanyahu can be when searching for votes.

The rise of the Joint List, and an increasingly active presence in parliament on the part of Arab Knesset members, however could prove to be the much-needed antidote to such racism.

In the past, by focusing primarily on the Palestinian issue as opposed to more domestic matters, Arab MKs have been seen as a fifth column by many Jewish Israelis, but this could be about to change.

In a revealing survey published in Yediot Aharanot in the weekend before the election of Israel-Arab voters, 77% of those polled said the Joint List should focus on the economic problems and societal challenges facing the Israeli-Arab sector, as opposed to just 16%who said the Joint List should center its attention on the Palestinian issue. Even more interestingly (remember, this poll was taken when it was still thought that Isaac Herzog had a chance of winning the election), 71% of the survey said the Joint List should join the coalition, with only 13% opposing becoming part of government.

And these sentiments seem to have been picked up by the leaders of the Joint List. In discussions last week for the allocation of temporary seats on Knesset committees ahead of the establishment of a coalition, the Joint List’s representative Ahmed Tibi said the party would relinquish its two seats on the prestigious foreign affairs and defense committee, which is its due as the third-largest party in the Knesset, in return for two extra seats on the finance committee.

As this request for increased representation on the finance committee is intended to signal the Joint List’s intention to focus on solving the economic problems of its voters – as opposed to empty grandstanding on the Palestinian issue – it does look like that Israel’s Arab minority may well have something to thank Avigdor Liberman for.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of ‘The Jerusalem Post.’

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