The Arab Israelis and their potential role as the conflict’s true mediator

There is one recent development within the Arab-Israeli community that could provide an opportunity to get the peace process back on track.

By GLENN FIELD
May 2, 2016 20:12
JOINT LIST leader Ayman Odeh leading a protest march in October

JOINT LIST leader Ayman Odeh leading a protest march in October. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Since April 2014 we have seen the Israeli-Palestinian peace process continue to deteriorate on the ground as well as at the political level. Beginning with the infamous kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank and the unification between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, the ensuing major military operation known as Operation Protective Edge followed Hamas rockets raining in on Israeli cities, worsening an already depressing situation in Gaza. At the same time however, during Operation Protective Edge we saw heightened displays of nationalism by Arab Israelis through protests in support for their people.

According to Haaretz, some 1,500 Arab Israelis were reportedly arrested for demonstrating against Israel’s policy during the war that summer. All of this occurred during failed peace talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas, facilitated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Then, during the Israeli elections in spring 2015, we saw another victory for Netanyahu’s right-wing government and the newly reelected prime minister made a statement on how low a two-state solution is on his government’s list of priorities. In fact, in the days leading up to the election, Netanyahu even famously said that under his administration “there will never be a two-state solution,” a statement which he retracted after he won. Many predict that we will continue to see a rightwing agenda tarnishing any future chance for a two-state solution. The PA’s chief negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat anticipated that Netanyahu’s government “will accelerate and intensify its actions against the Palestinian people.” To support this claim, settlement construction increased 123 percent between 2013 to 2014.

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In an effort to oppose what it claims to be Israel’s refusal to commit to a two-state solution, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) joined the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold Israel accountable for the continuation of settlement construction and aggression against the Gaza Strip. Joining the ICC as well as Israel increasing settlement activity, whether justified or not, were expected to further alienate the other side and continue to set back peace negotiations.

However, despite the deteriorations listed above, there is one recent development within the Arab-Israeli community that could provide an opportunity to get the peace process back on track. With the increased outspoken nationalism by the Palestinian people as well as a record-breaking turnout in Israeli elections, there is a parallel we have never experienced before: on one hand, increased nationalist support by Israeli Arabs for the Palestinian people, but on the other also unprecedented participation in Israeli elections, demonstrating an acknowledgment or acceptance of the Israeli establishment which historically was rejected by the community.

One would expect only one or the other to occur. Individually, each would most likely strengthen the Arab-Israeli community to one side.

This developing parallel could possibly act as the much-needed bridge between Israel and the Palestinians to redirect the peace process.

Historically, Arab Israelis have been conflicted regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have struggled to be considered part of Israel because they are not Jewish (though they receive the benefits of living in Israel), yet at the same time they are called traitors by their own people for not joining them in the struggle against the Zionist state. This double-edged sword has alienated them from both sides. But between 2014 and 2015, through several issues, their status has risen with both sides. Two issues in particular were their stance on Operation Protective Edge and their participation during the last Israeli elections.

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Regarding Arab-Israeli public opinion on Operation Protective Edge, many (even those who aim to integrate into Israeli society) opposed the operation in Gaza primarily because of the consequences to the Palestinians living there. In a poll taken by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank in August 2014, 62 percent of Israel’s Arabs opposed the war, whereas 24% claimed to be in favor of it.

However, despite such division between Israel and its Arab community during the summer of 2014, we also saw record-breaking turnout of Israeli- Arab voters during the 2015 Israeli elections, gaining more representation in the Knesset than ever before.

After the government raised the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% during the 19th Knesset’s term, the Arab parties banded together to comprise the Joint List – Ta’al and Balad, the Islamic Movement and the Jewish- Arab party Hadash. MK Ayman Odeh is head of the party.

According to Odeh, the Joint List “was formed in reaction to an attempt by the right-wing [forces] to transfer the Arab population outside of the political game.” This was a first-of-itskind collaboration and effectively ended two decades of election boycotts by the Arab-Israeli community, with recent polls showing the party in third place with as many as 13 to 14 potential seats in parliament. In the previous election of 2013, voter turnout among Arabs was just 56% – three percentage points higher than the previous election in 2009, but still lower than the 67.7% turnout among all Israeli voters that same year.

In the 19th Knesset, these parties had 11 seats all together. Arab voting turnout was at 63.5% in the election, compared to 56% in 2013.

In 2013, the Arab parties together received 349,000 votes compared to 444,000 in this election, an increase of 27.3%. Prior to the election, a survey by Statnet predicted 430,000 Arab votes and 12,000 Jewish votes for the Arab parties. According to The Jerusalem Post, aside from the newly formed Joint List, Arab voters supported, in the following order: “the Zionist Union with 22.8% (25,806 votes), the Likud 15.3% (17,394), Yisrael Beytenu 13.7% (15,538), Kulanu 11.8% (13,432), Meretz 11.2% (12,752), Shas 8.8% (10,016) and Yesh Atid 4.1% (4,662).”

In addition to the war in Gaza during 2014, the Arab parties have taken stances on other issues in support of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well. In regard to a bill recognizing products from the settlements, Hadash, part of the Joint List, said in statement that the boycott is a justifiable form of protest over the plight of the Palestinian people. The statement read: “Hadash welcomes the solidarity with the Palestinian people and its struggle for justice – including the boycott of commercial companies involved in the occupation and the disruption of the Palestinian people’s rights – which is a form of legitimate civilian resistance.”

However, with Arab representation rising in the Knesset, concerns about further integration emerge.

When asked about working with Israeli political groups in spite of a potential repeat of being prohibited from joining the ruling coalition after supporting it, Odeh responded emphasizing the Joint List’s aim to strengthen their “partnership with the democratic Jewish camp, to the extent that there is a true democratic camp.” Odeh went on to say “the coming year or two will be the years for strengthening the relationship between the Arab and Jewish democratic camps.”

Traditionally, the United States has acted as the dominant mediator during each peace talk between the Israelis and Palestinians. A third-party mediator does not necessarily need to have strict neutrality.

In fact, a mediator is often most successful when it has a particular stake in resolving the conflict, and the US certainly has an interest in taking the role of mediator in this conflict. However, the US has struggled to find a position that relates to both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

With Palestinians having to rely on what they have considered to be an indifferent or ineffective Obama administration pushing the stalled Middle East peace negotiations forward, an alternate (and more indigenous) third-party mediator may be better suited.

In many prior peace agreements, a personal interest in reaching a resolution has provided a level of credibility among the parties involved which allows them to trust the third party’s commitment to the process.

The Arab-Israeli community has as much of a stake in resolving this conflict as anyone. After all, this is still their home at the end of the day. There are several areas of negotiations in which the Arab Israelis could facilitate more effectively than the US or another international actor could. One such example would be during trust-building measures. During the Camp David Summit for example, one of the greatest obstacles, which eventually catered to its failure, was the fact that there was mutual distrust between the Israeli and Palestinian delegations. Even the US delegation was unable to properly build trust between them. Representatives of the Arab-Israeli community, however, could have possibly acted as such a bridge because of experience cooperating with both sides.

Future opportunities for Arab Israelis to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians would be during municipality logistics where they could help build relations between the IDF and local communities, or more importantly, mediate or negotiate for the next cease-fire agreement with Gaza.

Bartering a deal for a cease-fire could earn the Joint List the greatest amount of political points from both sides. Essentially, they would be responsible for keeping both Israelis and Palestinians safe. Taking a role during Operation Protective Edge could have been the stabilizing force needed to preserve the ongoing peace talks to allow all players involved (particularly Israel and the PA) to keep their credibility intact.

The Joint List (had it already been formed) could have taken a nuanced path in being the ear to both sides allowing either side not to appear weak by compromising.

On a smaller scale, such measures have already been set in motion.

Since the elections, President Abbas has met with MK Odeh and Israel’s Islamic Movement leader Abdullah Nimar Darwish in Ramallah. Abbas informed the two leaders that the Arab League is set to invite all the members of the Joint List to the group’s headquarters in Cairo and to another meeting Doha. Odeh has also met with Netanyahu in what the prime minister called an effort “to continue reducing the gaps in Israeli society.” This could be the political niche that the Joint List needs, not only at the national level but the international level as well, assuming it can continue to build trust with both the Israeli majority and the PA simultaneously.

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