Arab citizens of Israel undergo quiet revolution

Buoyed by election results, sector seems intent on increasing its impact

An Israeli Arab casts her ballot at a polling station inside a church in the northern town of Reineh, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
An Israeli Arab casts her ballot at a polling station inside a church in the northern town of Reineh, March 17, 2015.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
“I just drove by Wadi Ara and saw the long lines of Arab voters by the polling stations,” said Absorption Minister Yoav Galant (Likud) on Israel Radio on Election Day. His words were ridiculed online by many, who felt they were a direct continuation of the ongoing incitement against the Arab citizens of Israel by Likud, Israel’s ruling party, a natural extension of “The Arabs are flocking to the polling stations,” “The Arabs want to steal the elections,” and “The Arabs want to kill us all.” Yet, for the first time in many years, there were indeed lines at some polling stations in Arab towns. Sixty percent of all eligible Arab voters had exercised their political will this time around, in contrast to just 49% back in April of this year.
When all the votes were counted, it became clear that the Joint List, comprising the predominantly Arab Hadash, Balad, Ra’am and Ta'al parties, was among the few winners of these elections, along with its nemesis – Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. The list had gained 13 seats in the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) and significantly increased the participation rate despite the anticipation that many voters would stay home, intimidated by the attempt of Likud activists to place cameras at the polling stations. The leaders of the Joint List campaigned hard and smart, while the municipalities were able to increase the participation rate by arranging referenda on burning issues such as education and local policing.
In little more than a week since after the elections, the unbelievable happened: The Joint List took a fateful decision: to recommend Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White list, for prime minister. A small step for humanity, a big step for the Arab parties, which refrained from allying themselves with any of the Zionist parties since 1992. The polls showed that over 80% of Arab Israeli citizens supported this move, wishing for increasing participation of the Arab parties in Israeli politics. Paradoxically, they, who were increasingly castigated as the fifth column that has no wish to integrate, displayed en masse that they desire to play a significant role in Israeli politics and the life of the State of Israel.
The path to pragmatism
Back in 2014, all Arab parties had to swallow a bitter pill. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Foreign Minister Liberman had agreed on raising the minimum electoral threshold to 3.25% of the total votes cast. This legislation left little choice to the Arab parties; this is why the Joint List was formed. During its four years in the 20th Knesset, the forced coexistence between communists, Islamists, and nationalists had resulted in a few acts that were in stark disarray, with the moderate persona of Hadash party leader Ayman Odeh as head of the Joint List bloc. The bloc refused to sign a surplus vote agreement with Meretz in the 2015 elections. Then, its members declined participation in the funeral of former President Shimon Peres, the architect of Oslo agreements. By 2016, the Joint List overtly supported Hezbollah, after it was designated a terrorist organization by Gulf Arab states. It seemed as if the ultra-nationalist Balad party was speaking out of the throat of Odeh, despite having only three seats out of 13.
By 2019, the Joint List was no longer joined, and its constituent parties had to run separately, gaining a mere 10 seats. This defeat indicated the disappointment of Arab voters who were frustrated by the stubbornness of their politicians, who seemed to be unwilling to work together. This time, Odeh was determined not to gamble on his success and to follow the will of the public: to participate and to influence.
“My colleagues and I have made this decision not as an endorsement of Mr. Gantz and his policy proposals for the country. We are aware that Mr. Gantz has refused to commit to our legitimate political demands for a shared future, and because of that, we will not join his government,” Odeh had written in his recent op-ed “We Are Ending Netanyahu’s Grip on Israel,” published by The New York Times. Yet, despite the criticism toward Gantz’s overtures with the right-wing rhetoric “I returned Gaza to the Stone Age,” this time the Joint List couldn’t be picky about it.
“Eighty-three percent of the Arab public endorsed the Joint List, providing a security web to Benny Gantz, while 63% also supported the Joint List becoming part of a ruling coalition. Right now our job is that of a spare tire, but I believe that this careful game by the leaders of the Joint List is well thought out and will prove itself,” Mohammad Darawshe, director of the Center for Equality & Shared Society at the Givat Haviva Center for Shared Society, said to The Media Line.
Darawshe argued that current events were just part of a wider, quiet revolution that erupted in 1988 when his uncle, MK Abdulwahab Darawshe, launched Mada – the Arab Democratic Party. By 1992 this party was a part of the left-wing obstructive bloc and even wished to join the government led by Yitzhak Rabin.
“The support for Gantz was a way to get even with Benjamin Netanyahu. His despicable incitement, the notorious Nationality Law, along with the desire of the Arab public to be more involved in Israeli politics, had brought about these results. Many people believe that their MKs are not doing enough for the general Arab public in the Knesset. Even if that was not true, the people had voted with their legs this time,” says Hassan Mwasi, a journalist and media consultant from Baqa al-Gharbiyye.
Between the rock and the hard place
No doubt, the Nationality Law increased anxiety among Arab voters. Many became concerned: Would they be able to cast their vote next time if Netanyahu continued to govern the country? Others were worried about house demolitions in their neighborhood, unemployment, poor education, and rising crime. Last year, 70 Arab Israelis were murdered, according to the Israel Police, a sharp increase from 56 victims four years ago. Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan had promised to fight crime in the Arab sector but ended up blaming the Arab citizens of Israel for these deaths. Just a day before the inauguration of the 22nd Knesset, the Joint List had announced that it will boycott the inauguration ceremony, protesting against the police’s weakness and its inability to cope with the wave of violence.
Iman Khatib Yassin, the first female candidate from the moderate Islamist Ra’am (United Arab List) party, says that the general public appreciated this kind of realpolitik: “We still have our national agenda and solidarity with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. However, life became so hard for our people that we just had to put it aside for a while, in order to concentrate on our issues,” Khatib Yassin told The Media Line. 
Many candidates to the Knesset—Arabs and Jews who campaigned in recent years in Arab Israeli towns—can confirm that this sentiment is often expressed. Bilal Al-Ahmad, a salesman from Acre who supports the communist Hadash party, told The Media Line that for many years the Arab parties in Israel had focused on the general Palestinian cause—the end of occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state—while forgetting about local grievances. “The [Jewish] Israelis look at us as if we don’t belong, as if we are living outside like the Palestinians in Ramallah or Gaza. But we are from here, and we need solutions to our problems,” he said.
Arab citizens of Israel are undeniably part of a wider milieu of Arabs and, in most cases, Muslims, globally, and many of them also have a strong Palestinian identity. Yet as time goes by, their sense of belonging and the need to fight for their rights speeds up the process of “Israelization.” More Arabs Israelis speak Hebrew today than ever before (but more Jews do not speak Arabic than ever before), more Arabs are involved in the job market, and more Arabs and Jews share living space in mixed towns than in the past.
Not everyone in Israel is happy about this process. While for Arabs, the move to pragmatism and the choice of coexistence over isolationism are matters of survival, many in the right wing see this move as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character. Just a few weeks ago, Netanyahu said during a cabinet meeting that “there should never be a government that is leaning on non-Zionist Arab parties,” a view that is shared by the vast majority of right-wing and center-right voters. The leaders of Blue and White echoed this idea, showing that even when the Arab parties are ready to bargain, there are not many buyers on the Jewish end of Israeli politics. “These arguments that are thrown to the face of Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel are offensive. This brainwash in insane. It is an essential right of Arabs Israelis to influence the political system and to be full and equal partners in education, the job market, and politics. The state shouldn’t be at war with its citizens,” former MK Taleb el-Sana told The Media Line.
Constructing the future
For now, it seems that the Joint List has already reached the apex of its flexibility. The Joint List will not join the ruling coalition but may support it from the outside, depending on the outcome of coalition negotiations. Some in the Arab public feel that by endorsing Odeh’s decision to recommend that the president task Gantz to form the new government, they had paid the down-payment already; they’ve made their move. Now it’s time to see if there will be some reciprocity on behalf of the Jewish-Israeli political power.
The Arab citizens of Israel need rapid development of their areas. They dream of having high-tech zones and industrial centers; they seek enhanced police work to battle the crime that is raging in the streets of Arab cities; and they resent the vicious incitement against them that was led for years by the prime minister and the ruling party. Will the future government, which for now is still nowhere to be seen, be able to fulfill all of these demands and build bridges between the establishment and one-fifth of Israel’s population?
During the recent political campaign, the Likud party accused Gantz numerous times of “planning to create a government with [Joint List MKs] Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh,” but the leaders of the bloc had ruled it out many times. When Blue and White MK Ram Ben-Barak, ex-deputy director of the Mossad, turned to the Arabs this summer, he said that Blue and White needed them “to change the government.” But what will happen the day after such a change is accomplished?
Amjad Iraqi, a contributing editor at +972 magazine, said to The Media Line that what is missing from the tactical decision of the Joint List is thought about the day after. “This decision is quite some gamble that could also backfire, especially if a unity government will be formed eventually between Likud and the Blue and White bloc. I do understand the logic —Ayman Odeh decided to prioritize getting rid of Netanyahu, and most of the public endorsed him because they want to change at least some part of the equation. But how do we know that the Blue and White bloc, whose leaders had their share of critical and negative remarks about Arabs, will be able to live up to its promises?” said Iraqi.
El-Sana believes that if the Joint List is unable to maximize its gains this time around, the alternative for the next time will be voting for existing Jewish parties or for a joint Arab-Jewish party, a project that el-Sana tried to run this time together with the former Knesset speaker, Avrum Burg. There are also many question marks about the participation of the Balad party, which is increasingly seen by many in the Arab public as a destabilizing element that fails to serve its people. “If they were to participate in the elections today by themselves, they would go down. They have three seats in the Joint List, but they are worth only 1.5 seats, or even less” says Darawshe. On the opposite side, Iraqi believes that Balad gives legitimacy to the Joint List, serving as a link between them and the wider Palestinian cause. “Balad still represents a significant portion of voters. They need the Joint List, and the Joint List needs them,” he concludes.
For now, Arab voters seem to be quite satisfied with the result. They proved to be resilient against incitement and intimidation, increased their representation at the Knesset, and now will wait just like everyone else to see how the current political reality TV unfolds.
The leaders of the Joint List will now have to prove to their voters that they can make some real gains with the increased power that they received this time. Considering the shaky structure of the bloc, which includes four different parties with contradicting ideologies, this will not be easy. If no government is formed and Israel goes to a third round of elections, the bloc will have to campaign extremely hard to maintain its success. For now, it is unlikely that the Joint List will top its current result—13 seats. The quiet revolution in the Arab sector, however, will continue, sweeping Arab Israeli citizens away from segregation and isolation, toward integration and equality.
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