Why can’t the Joint List join the government?

If non-Zionist, nondemocratic haredi parties can sit in a coalition, why can’t Arab politicians?

August 25, 2019 22:09
4 minute read.
Why can’t the Joint List join the government?

MK Ayman Odeh, co-head of the Israeli-Arab Hadash-Ta'al party at a rally supporting the Supreme Court in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2019. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)

Thank you Ayman Odeh.

By daring to challenge the consensus, among both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, the head of the Joint List is the first political leader to rise above the desultory “yes to Bibi/anybody but Bibi” mantra dominating this election campaign.

For the first time in Israel’s history, the leader of the country’s Arab parties has not ruled out joining a coalition government headed by a Zionist party. Even though the chances of such an eventuality happening are close to zero, the enormity of Odeh’s declaration should not be dismissed.

Similar to the Ashkenazi haredi parties, which choose not to take a ministerial position so as not to share in collective responsibility for any Shabbat desecration approved by the government, the Arab parties have always refused to countenance sitting in any government and recognize, by doing so, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

But there the difference ends. While United Torah Judaism is actively courted by whoever is looking to form a government, the Arab parties are steadfastly ignored. In fact, it has become a matter of political expediency for any mainstream Jewish party leader to explicitly rule out “sitting with Arabs” in any future government. The Arab parties, to borrow a phrase from Jewish history, are beyond the pale.

THE OFFICIAL argument for so crudely dismissing the Joint List faction, which represents around 20% of Israel’s population, centers around the fact that one of its member parties, Balad, militantly refuses to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

This is true. Balad’s mission is to transform the State of Israel into a democracy for all its citizens, irrespective of national or ethnic identity, recasting the country from a solely Jewish state to a binational state. A former Balad leader, Azmi Bishara, fled the country to avoid facing charges of supporting terrorism against Israelis and terrorism (charges he denied).

Another former Balad Knesset member, Basel Ghattas, served a two-year prison sentence for smuggling mobile phones to convicted Palestinian terrorists while using his Knesset privileges to visit them in jail. Current Balad Knesset members, meanwhile, have angrily dismissed Odeh’s declaration.

So, no, Balad members cannot be counted among the Lovers of Zion. But neither, on an ideological level, can UTJ politicians. Let me be very clear: I am not comparing any UTJ leader or political functionary to terrorist-supporting Balad MKs. Nor is the UTJ party seeking to bring about the end of the State of Israel in its current form.

However, UTJ is far from being a Zionist, democratic party. Its loyalty lies with its rabbinical leaders’ strict, fundamentalist interpretation of the Torah. When the late Rabbi Elazar Shach established Degel Hatorah (one of the two parties forming UTJ), he chose this name, which means “Flag of the Torah,” to be a contrast to the flag of Israel, the representation of the secular state of Israel.

And as for commitment to democracy, when was the last time you heard of internal elections inside either Degel Hatorah or its UTJ partners Agudat Yisrael? Their party lists and political positions are determined, as are those of the Sephardi Shas Party, by a council of rabbis meeting in secret. It also goes without saying that there are no women UTJ or Shas Knesset members, due to the prohibitive restrictions placed on women in public life among the ultra-Orthodox community.

Nevertheless, when it comes to coalition building, the haredim are kosher partners for the Zionist mainstream, even as they continue to challenge one of the last remaining sacred cows of modern-day Israel: universal conscription in the Israel Defense Forces.

Funnily enough, despite the great disparity in their worldviews, the haredi parties and the Arab parties often share similar agendas inside the Knesset, including opposition to national service. Both groups represent significant minority communities inside the wider Israeli society and have the same concerns in ensuring their rights are not trampled upon by the mainstream majority.

IN LISTING his conditions for joining a future coalition – improved urban planning for the Arab sector, including the establishment of a new Arab city; improved law enforcement in Arab towns; better social care for Arab citizens, for example the construction of a public hospital in an Arab city; and peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority to bring about a two-state solution and the annulment of the Nation-State Law – Odeh is not asking for the moon.

Any center-left coalition could easily sign up to all these conditions, while even a government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have no objection to the first three demands. After all, to the prime minister’s credit, his previous administration approved a five-year NIS 15 billion plan to focus on housing and education for the Arab sector.

Now that Odeh has publicly renounced the seven-decade boycott of Israeli-Arab parties taking part in Israeli government, Israeli Jewish parties should be judged on their willingness to share power with the country’s largest minority and support for the better integration of 20% of Israel’s population.

Such a debate can only elevate this, until now, miserable election campaign.

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

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