Appeasement vs. incitement: two takeaways from the Israeli election

“I want to lead Arab politics from a politics of protest to a politics of influence. We are 20% of Israel’s population, and we are needed to bring equality, democracy and social justice to Israel.”

September 20, 2019 18:42
4 minute read.
Appeasement vs. incitement: two takeaways from the Israeli election

AYMAN ODEH, leader of the Joint List – he holds a key to the castle, one that only Benny Gantz could use. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

We don’t yet have a prime minister candidate, nor a clear path to a government. Both will take some time. But there are already valuable and useful lessons that have emerged from this week’s election.

The first relates to Israel’s Arab population. For years, the Arab Knesset members focused on nationalistic issues in the parliament, serving as the mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority in decrying “the occupation,” criticizing the Israel Defense Force, and not indicating any desire to be partners in the leadership of Israel.

Arab MK’s would not even recommend anyone to be prime minister lest they be accused of having any association with Jewish candidates from Zionist parties. The recognition that their representatives would not be working for their interests and needs, and would not even consider joining a government which is where real societal reforms can be made, played a significant role in the low Arab voter turnout in past elections.

But in this election, MK Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List, changed course. He gave an interview in Yediot Aharonot just a few weeks ago in which he said, “I want to lead Arab politics from a politics of protest to a politics of influence. We are 20% of Israel’s population, and we are needed to bring equality, democracy and social justice to Israel.”

While Odeh ruled out the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-led government, he presented four conditions for entering a Gantz-led government:

“The first is the construction of a new Arab city and redoing the rules to allow for more Arab construction and stopping demolitions in Arab areas. Second is a government focus on fighting crime in Arab areas, including an operation to gather all the weapons that people own in the Arab population. Third is in the welfare realm including building a public hospital in an Arab city, and raising stipends for the elderly. Finally, there must be direct negotiations with the Palestinian leaders to bring an end to the occupation and to establish a Palestinian state, alongside canceling the Nation-State Law.”

The first three conditions focus on needs also relevant to the Israeli community and could be easily accepted by Benny Gantz. While the last condition is more complicated, the very fact that their leader is placing real day-to-day issues on the table as a possible entry into a government energized much of the Arab population, making them feel that it was worthwhile to vote to try to place their representatives in positions of influence. And that led to a larger Arab turnout than usual, which enabled them to stay in double-digit mandates despite the high turnout throughout the country.

This change in the attitude of the Arab Knesset leadership and the positive impact it had on its population participating in Israeli democracy is a significant takeaway from the election results, and I hope this continues a process of the Israeli Arabs seeing themselves as equal citizens and participants in all the opportunities that Israel has to offer them.

THE SECOND lesson from the election was the other reason for the high Arab voter turnout: the message that incitement doesn’t pay and only strengthens the targets of the incitement.

This election campaign has seen high volume negativity regarding the Israeli-Arab population. Netanyahu’s campaign included consistent fear-mongering about the dangers facing an Israel led by Benny Gantz of Blue and White, because that would lead to Arab leaders serving as ministers in the Israeli government. His advertisements included scary music, colors and voices depicting the dangers that would face Israel in this scenario. Then the prime minister tried to push through quick legislation to allow for cameras in the polling stations because, he said, “The Arabs are stealing the election.” This rhetoric and generalizing about “the Arabs” was hurtful to high numbers of Israel’s Arabs, who make up 20% of the state’s population.

This rhetoric from the prime minister and others on his team riled up the Arab base, and the Arab population responded by voting in huge numbers, winning double digits and giving Odeh the ability to boast that “the Arabs prevented the formation of a right-wing Netanyahu government.”

The other example of rhetoric backfiring and not being helpful is a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago – that the negative campaigning about the ultra-Orthodox parties would have a boomerang effect. And that is exactly what happened. Shas managed to grow to nine mandates and United Torah Judaism maintained its all-time peak of eight Knesset seats. The ultra-Orthodox leadership used the rhetoric from the likes of Liberman and Lapid and responded with horrific rhetoric about the secular leaders. This riled up their base to come out and vote in high numbers to defend their honor.

It is my hope that all parties will learn that the divisive language helped no one to victory, and only served to strengthen those whom they sought to defeat.

As we wait to see how the second stage of the election process unfolds, I hope these lessons of tolerance, unity and positivity can be themes of the parties and values of the new governing coalition.

The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.

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