Can Arab parties serve in a center-left Zionist coalition?

The lack of political will to include any of the Arab parties within a center-left Zionist bloc is disappointing for a couple of reasons.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an election campaign event in Tira last week.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, gestures as he hands out pamphlets during an election campaign event in Tira last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Despite their continued rise in recent elections, the predominantly Arab Joint List still struggles to find a place in Israeli politics. Shortly after the third round of elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared himself the winner because the “Arabs [parties] are not part of the equation” when trying to form a government.
His rival, Benny Gantz, and the Blue and White Party did not seriously consider the Joint List to be a potential partner either. Before deciding to join Netanyahu in a unity government, Gantz never mentioned the possibility of including the Joint List in a coalition, and many of his allies, such as Blue and White MKs Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Handel and Gesher MK Orly Levy-Abecassis, said they would not even sit in a minority government that is supported by the Arab parties.
The lack of political will to include any of the Arab parties within a center-left Zionist bloc is disappointing for a couple of reasons.
First is because it would allow the Arab community in Israel to feel more represented since the vast majority of Israeli Arabs vote for the Joint List and want to be included in a government.
Second, including them within his bloc could have strengthened Gantz and his allies’ leverage against Netanyahu and his right-wing bloc.
Although Gantz's relations with the Joint List have likely been burned since he decided to join Netanyahu in a unity government, it is still important to discuss why and how future center-left Zionist blocs should seek to include some of the Arab parties.
It is important to note that the Joint List is a broad coalition of different Arab parties. It would therefore be misleading to generalize all of them as the same.
Of course, with that said, there are some members in the Joint List who likely cannot work with Zionist parties. For example, the Balad faction within the Joint List has a notorious affiliation with terrorists. Former Balad leader Azmi Bishara allegedly spied for Hezbollah while he was an Israeli legislator, and current Balad MK Heba Yazbak once referred in a Facebook post to convicted Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar as a “martyr.”
Balad has also indicated that it does not consider Israel’s political system or Jewish character to be legitimate. In 2015, Balad prevented a surplus vote agreement between the Joint List and Meretz, even though it is considered to be the most left-wing and anti-occupation Zionist party. Moreover, Yazbak suggested in an interview that one of her primary goals as a member of the Knesset will be to take away the Jewish character of the State of Israel.
One should not expect an Israeli Jew or party that believes in Zionism to include a person or party that is actively trying to take away Israel's Jewish identity, let alone one that has a historic affiliation with terrorists.
NEVERTHELESS, JUST as it would be misleading to assume all the members of the Joint List are peace-seeking doves, one would also be mistaken to assume they are all terrorists who cannot work with any Zionist party.
The current head of the Joint List and head of the Hadash faction, Ayman Odeh, has presented a stance that may be compatible with Zionist parties that have a vision for social justice. In an interview with the Fathom journal in 2017, Odeh was asked what his focus would be if he were to join an Israeli government.
He did not talk much about Israel's Jewish identity or whether or not he believes in Zionism. Rather, he emphasized that he would focus on addressing socioeconomic inequality and poor living conditions within the Arab sectors. Odeh also pointed out how improving the socioeconomic status and living conditions of Israeli Arabs would also be economically beneficial for certain Jewish communities in Israel that have been neglected.
In other words, although he is not a passionate Zionist, Arab MKs like Odeh seem to be more focused on addressing the grievances of Israel's Arab communities, and even neglected Jewish communities, than they are on fundementally changing Israel's identity as a Jewish state. That is something Zionist parties not only can and should work with, but, in fact, already have worked with.
The ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel, such as Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), are not authentically Zionists. Yet, not only have have they served in Israeli governments, they have also sat in the same coalitions as some of Israel's farthest right-wing Zionist parties, such as Bayit Yehudi.
There may be several reasons why Israel's Orthodox parties have been able to work in the same coalition as Zionists. One is because they are needed in order to garner enough seats to form a government.
Another reason, though, is because the Zionist parties know that Shas and UTJ are more interested in addressing the needs of Israel's haredi communities, such as advocating for subsidies for their yeshivot and favorable draft bills, than they are in changing the character of the state. MKs like Odeh and parties like Hadash seem to have a similar approach to addressing the needs of Israel's Arab communities.
In order to better challenge the Israeli right-wing bloc, center-left Zionist parties will need to seek a paradigm shift on how they build their coalitions. If they want to create broader and more representative coalitions, they would be wise to make the distinction between the Arab parties they can work with and the ones they cannot. Doing so may not only lead to the formation of more stable governments, but may also strengthen Israel’s social cohesion and promote further equality between its Jewish and Arab citizens.
The author is a contributing writer for the Israel Policy Exchange and is currently pursuing his MSW at Boston College.