It’s time for a semitically bilingual leader in Israel

Not being able to communicate directly to the 21% of Arab-Israelis in their language is practically a political sin.

CANADA’S CONSERVATIVE PARTY leader Erin O’Toole speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in October. (photo credit: REUTERS)
CANADA’S CONSERVATIVE PARTY leader Erin O’Toole speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in October.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For the majority of Jewish Israelis, speaking Arabic might be at best an intellectual achievement. However, for any prime ministerial candidate, and especially one from the progressive-center, being semitically bilingual and reaching out to the Arab minority should be an absolute necessity. If anything is clear from the last several elections, it’s that the Center-Left can’t win without expanding its base. The dream team of Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, opposition leader Yair Lapid, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and Moshe Ya’alon failed to attract many voters beyond the Center. So, repeating the same recipe will likely lead to the same results. For a leader of a country where the mother tongue of 21% of the population is Arabic, not being able to communicate directly to Arab-Israelis in their language is practically a political sin. Something needs to change.
Canada, whose linguistic demographic is similar to Israel – in which 20% of the population is French – recently held a leadership race for the opposition Conservative Party. The initial front-runner, Peter Mackay, was once minister of justice and attorney-general, minister of defense, and minister of foreign affairs. The youthful, athletic candidate seemed to be a shoo-in to lead the Conservatives. His major disadvantage was that he couldn’t speak French. Mackay lost to a political unknown, yet bilingual Erin O’Toole. The inability of Mackay to speak French and attract conservative support in Quebec was the principal reason for his loss. The fact is, any mainstream party in Canada needs Quebec to win a majority, and not being able to communicate to French-Canadians is a political non-starter for any major party in Canada. That is something for the political center in Israel to consider.
After 70 years, the Arab minority has benefited from being Israeli. Although there is room for improvement, it is true that under Zionist leadership, the country’s Arab population is on average more educated, lives longer and enjoys a standard of living that surpasses all of its Arab neighbors. It is a proud reality that should resonate among Arab-Israelis. Yet when the Arab minority sends 15 members of the Joint List to the Knesset it becomes obvious something isn’t registering. Perhaps, the Arab sector is estranged from voting for the mainstream parties because Jewish leadership can’t properly communicate the advantages of voting for a Zionist party. To make matters worse, Joint List votes are practically wasted because it’s almost impossible for a mainstream Zionist party to officially align themselves in a coalition with a party that has members who seek the abolition of the Jewish nature of the state. Therein lies the opportunity to persuade the Arab sector to vote in greater numbers for parties that would make their votes count.
A 2019 poll showed 47% of Arab-Israelis were willing to support Jewish parties if the parities would represent their views. So, the door is open to peel away at least some of the support the Joint List enjoys. In a recent study by the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, 65% of Arab-Israelis cited crime and their economic situation as being issues most important to them. It is then logical to assume that these results point to an opening for Zionist parties to look at Arab voters as potential party constituents. Having a party leader engage with the minority population in Arabic creates a connection that an appointed Arab lieutenant simply can’t achieve. Imagine a bilingual Gantz campaigning in Arab towns and villages, debating members of the Joint List in Arabic while promoting a Zionist platform in Arabic that speaks to the concerns of the Arab minority. A party leader whose vision states that all citizens of Israel should feel safe in their homes and find gainful employment as equal citizens is what a true leader should do. In other words, give Arab-Israelis a choice: do you want to vote for the Joint List and by default, vote in right-wing parties that do not care for your interests or vote in a party that has in its platform your interests in mind?
There is every reason to believe that if Zionist parties campaigned directly to an Arab constituency, they could attract up to seven Joint List mandates. Not an insignificant amount, and in a tight election could help push the center-left parties over the finish line ahead of the right-wing parties. The fact is, things need to change, and the sooner the better.