On Monday night, just as Ra’am (United Arab List) MK Mazen Ghanaim voted against an extension of Israeli law to Israelis living beyond the Green Line – thereby delivering a crushing blow to the coalition – Yamina MK Nir Orbach rushed at him in the Knesset plenum.
“You don’t want to be partners,” Orbach shouted at Ghanaim. “The experiment with you has failed.”
Ghanaim was one of the two Arab MKs in the coalition, the other being Meretz’s Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi, who voted against the measure, leading to its failure to pass.
It possibly could be that the grand Bennett-Lapid “experiment” of forming a government that includes the Right, the Left, religious Zionists and Islamists may prove to be unworkable, as the 20% that the parties disagree on ideologically trumps the 80% that they agree on. (That 80-20 ratio was provided last year by Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev.) And if the Bennett-Lapid government experiment fails, it may or may not – depending on one’s political leanings – be a disaster.
Eventually, however, another government will be set up, and life will go on until that “experiment,” too, will fail.
Why the Arab sector loses
But if the experiment that Orbach declared a failure was the inclusion of an Arab party – which represents a minority that comprises some 21% of the country’s population – at the table where resources are allocated and strategic decisions are made, then everyone loses. The Arab minority loses, as does the Jewish majority.
The Arab minority loses because, if its representatives are not at the table when the pie is being divvied up, they will not get their fair share. And the Jewish majority loses because it is in its interest that the Arabs fully integrate into society and feel they have a stake in the country.
Israel cannot afford for this experiment to fail.
There are, very broadly, two opposing and competing currents running through Israel’s Arab sector. One current is the “al-Aqsa is in danger” current. This current, represented in the Knesset in varying ways by the Joint List of Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and Sami Abou Shahadeh, rejects the idea of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. It is more focused on the Palestinian issue and “protecting” al-Aqsa than on improving the lot of the Arabs living inside Israel.
The Ra’am Party that Ghanaim is part of is headed by Mansour Abbas. Ra’am represents the opposing current: It acknowledges Israel as a Jewish state and has decided to work within that state for the benefit of the Arab minority that lives there.
Abbas adheres to the principle that the Palestinian issue won’t be resolved by strident anti-Israel speeches in the Knesset or by blasting Israel in parliaments abroad. Instead, life for Arabs in Israel can be improved by working through the Knesset and, more effectively, by being part of the coalition.
“We want to bring about change in Arab society itself,” Abbas said at a conference on Wednesday. “We are not waiting for change [to happen] to say that we are creating change, but we are changing [things] through partnership, and, in my opinion, so far we have succeeded.”
It is in Israel’s interest that the trend that Abbas embodies gets strengthened, while the one represented by the Joint List is weakened.
After a year inside the government, the needle does not seem to be moving significantly in either direction in the Arab sector. In the last elections, the Joint List won six seats and Ra’am won four. According to a KAN News poll on Tuesday night, were elections to be held today, the situation would remain exactly the same.
Experiment is 'worth trying again and again'
If the supposed “failed” experiment is the possibility of Arab parties taking part in the government, then it is worth trying again and again until everyone gets it right. Perhaps what has failed is not the idea that an Arab party can be an equal partner in the coalition, but rather that an Arab party can be an equal party in a narrow coalition. Were the current government to have had 72 seats under its control, rather than a paltry 60, then the experiment would not have failed.
Pretend, for a moment, that we had a government with 72 seats. In this scenario, if one or two MKs of any particular party did not vote with the coalition, it would not have affected the government nearly as badly; there’d be votes to spare. The problem with the current government is that it is too narrow. Right now, if just one or two MKs do not toe the coalition line, the coalition spirals into a crisis.
“This experiment succeeds at the level of the parties,” Abbas said in a KAN Reshet Bet interview on Wednesday. “There are challenges with a number of individual Knesset members, and not only from Ra’am, Meretz or Yamina.”
In other words, in his mind, the problem is not with an Arab party being a full member of the coalition or that ideologically diverse parties cannot work together; the past year has shown that they can. Rather, he said, the problem is one of party discipline.
If that indeed is the problem, then the solution is not to keep an Arab party out of the coalition, but instead to build wider coalitions where the government is not dependent on one or two votes. But that, as Israeli political history has shown, is much easier said than done.