New Arab party promotes hope and change

The question is whether Israeli Arabs will back its focus on jobs and housing rather than the Palestinians.

Arab MKs 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Arab MKs 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A group of Israeli Arab activists is currently working to establish a new political party very different from the existing ones: Instead of focusing almost exclusively on the Palestinian issue, its focus would be on bread-and-butter issues of concern to all Israeli Arabs: housing, employment, crime, etc.
“[Current] Arab MKs are interested only in matters pertaining to the Palestinians and events in Arab countries,” one of the activists told Israel Hayom. “[They] are more often found outside the country than in the streets of Arab villages and cities in Israel, and it's time we changed that.”
Judging by a study published last month, Israeli Arabs may be ripe for such a party. The survey found that only 12 percent of Israeli Arabs deemed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their most pressing concern; the rest cited domestic issues, particularly education (24 percent), poverty and unemployment (24 percent), and crime (16 percent).
Yet the survey’s other results provide grounds for skepticism – because while it’s clear Israeli Arabs want more political attention paid to such problems, it’s not at all clear they understand that the existing Arab parties are the number-one reason why it isn’t.
The survey’s goal was to determine why Israeli Arabs vote in much lower numbers than Israeli Jews, and how their participation could be increased. In the 2009 election, for instance, Arab turnout was only 53 percent, while total turnout was 64.7 percent and Jewish turnout around 68 percent.
A sizable minority of respondents (17 percent) said they boycott elections out of ideological opposition to the Jewish state. But the study found that a much larger percentage simply sees no point in voting, because they don’t believe their vote has any impact on government decision-making.
In that, they are undeniably correct: Israeli Arabs vote overwhelmingly for Arab parties, which have never been part of any governing coalition and thus have little impact on decision-making.
Yet this isn’t a matter of anti-Arab discrimination: Arab MKs from mainstream parties like Labor and Likud – mainly Druze, but sometimes non-Druze Arabs as well – have served as ministers and deputy ministers in several cabinets. Rather, it’s due to the Arab parties’ views and conduct, which make them unacceptable partners for any Israeli government, and always will.
How, for instance, could Balad be part of any Israeli government when one of its MKs proudly participated in a 2010 attempt to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza – a legal blockade supported by every major party – and then spread blatant lies about the incident in an effort to smear Israel overseas, insisting that her fellow flotilla passengers used no violence even in the face of video footage that showed them viciously assaulting Israeli soldiers with (as a UN report concluded) iron bars, staves, chains, slingshots and possibly knives?  Or when its former leader publicly urged both Israeli Arabs and Arab states to emulate Hezbollah’s terror war against Israel?
Similarly, how could Hadash or United Arab List be part of any Israeli government when Hadash chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh publicly called for Israeli Arabs to join the Palestinian violence against Israel that erupted in September 2000, while UAL MK Taleb A-Sana publicly a Tel Aviv shooting attack that wounded 10 people, mainly soldiers, as a “legitimate struggle” for which “there can be no guilt feelings”? Or when MKs from all three Arab parties routinely deem Israeli ministers “fascists,” “terrorists,” “murderers” and other such epithets every time they approve military action in Israel’s defense?
It ought to be clear that there can be no common ground between parties that justify and encourage anti-Israel terror and parties that deplore it, between parties that uphold Israel’s right to self-defense and parties that reject it. Hence as long as Israeli Arabs keep electing MKs who hold such radical views, Arab parties will continue to be excluded from all governments and devoid of influence.
Yet judging by the poll results, it’s far from clear that Israeli Arabs understand this basic fact. For instance, 59 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote if the Arab parties united – as if a single Arab party with the same radical views would somehow be less of a pariah. Similarly, 56 percent said they would be more likely to vote if an Arab were guaranteed at least one ministerial position. That means they either see no problem with granting a cabinet post to someone who lauds anti-Israel terror while publicly reviling his fellow ministers as “murderers,” or they see no problem with expecting mainstream parties to magically produce Arab ministers from their own ranks even though the overwhelming majority of Arab Israelis neither join them nor vote for them.
Equally troubling was that 49 percent said they would be more likely to vote if Israeli Arabs were guaranteed Knesset representation equal to their proportion in the population. Needless to say, that doesn’t require special guarantees; it merely requires Arab Israelis to vote in the same numbers that Jewish Israelis do. Yet these respondents evidently consider it reasonable to be guaranteed representation even if they don’t bother to vote.
In short, many Israeli Arabs appear to want rights with no attendant responsibilities: Knesset representation with no need to actually vote, cabinet representation with no need to stop advocating terror against their fellow citizens. And that is a fantasy that will never come true.
But an Arab party dedicated primarily to improving housing, education and employment opportunities for the Arab community could easily be part of any Israeli coalition, just as haredi parties concerned primarily with addressing their community’s needs are. Unlike, say, the demand that Israel refrain from defending itself against Palestinian terror, demands for better education and employment opportunities are completely legitimate, and most Israelis recognize them as such.
The question is whether Israeli Arabs, for all their stated concern about these goals, are willing to give up their rhetorical assaults on the Jewish state in order to advance them. If the planned new party indeed runs, Israel may finally get an answer to this question.
And for the sake of Arab and Jewish Israelis alike, it must be hoped the answer will be yes.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.