The changing status of Israel’s Arab population - opinion

This complicated reality is undoubtedly reflected in the new political constellation created by Israel’s 36th government, and the way the Jewish opposition speaks of and relates to the Arab MKs.

PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. This week, various members of the coalition – foremost Abbas’s Ra’am party – signaled that they may not vote for the budget if certain conditions were not met. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett and MK Mansour Abbas in the Knesset. This week, various members of the coalition – foremost Abbas’s Ra’am party – signaled that they may not vote for the budget if certain conditions were not met.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Two weeks ago, Channel 12 TV aired a series of five reports, called “To be an Arab in Israel,” produced by its reporter on Palestinian affairs, Ohad Hemo, in its daily news broadcasts from Sunday to Thursday.

What Hemo did in his documentary was to present five Israeli Arab families with different backgrounds and approaches to their lives in Israel, leaving out extreme Islamists, rioters and law-breakers, and concentrating on people with whom the average Israeli is less likely to have contact in his/her daily life, even though they constitute the relatively silent majority within the Arab population.

What he wanted to hear from his Arab interviewees, who he also accompanied in their daily rounds, was how they view their connection to the State of Israel and how they contend in their daily lives with the dilemmas that this connection raises, both against the background of the attitude of the Israeli authorities and Jewish population toward them, and against the background of their being Palestinians.

Unlike most Israeli interviewers, Hemo didn’t approach his Arab interviewees as if they were guilty of some wrongdoing or hidden agendas, or from a judgmental point of view, but simply as someone who wanted to hear their point of view about the reality they live in, which is not simple by any standard.

Side by side with his documentary footage, Hemo stood before a group of Israeli Jews, whom he confronted with basic facts about the daily lives of Israel’s Arab citizens. It is not clear how the members of the group were chosen, but from their recorded reactions to the facts that Hemo presented, most of them appeared to be pretty ignorant about what should be common knowledge regarding the lives of 20% of their fellow citizens. For example, the vast differences in average earnings between Jews and Arabs, or the fact that in the Jewish town of Safed there are 26 bus lines, and that in an Arab town of similar size there are only two. It is also unclear whether any effort was made to include in the group representatives of the variety of views held by Israeli Jews about the Arabs and their rightful place in the Israeli society.

A demonstrator holds a sign reading ''their pain is the responsibility of all of us,'' as Jewish and Arab Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against police inaction, the surging crime and violence in Arab communities  on March 13, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)A demonstrator holds a sign reading ''their pain is the responsibility of all of us,'' as Jewish and Arab Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against police inaction, the surging crime and violence in Arab communities on March 13, 2021. (credit: FLASH90)

For example, one woman from the group stated that she resents seeing Knesset seats occupied by Arab MKs (in the 24th Knesset there are two Arab deputy speakers). This woman might believe that the fact that there are Arabs in Israel is a historical mistake, as recently stated by Religious Zionist Party chairman Bezalel Smotrich, who explained that the “mistake” was the result of the “fact” that in 1948/49, prime minister David Ben-Gurion did not have enough time to throw all the Arabs out. Alternatively, she might believe that the Arabs have the right to remain in Israel, but that Israel’s democracy applies only to its Jewish residents. There are also Jewish Israelis, who maintain that only “loyal” Arabs, who accept that Israel is the exclusive national home of the Jewish people, can be citizens. Others believe that since Israel is a democracy, its Arab citizens, like everyone else, can hold whatever views and beliefs they choose, as long as they do not endanger the security of the State of Israel and Jewish lives.

In other words, there are Israeli Jews who believe that all the Israeli Arabs pose a threat to the State of Israel, and that at best should be tolerated. For these, what Hemo portrays in his series is of no interest. There are those who believe that the majority of the Arabs do not pose an existential threat to Israel, and what Hemo portrays is of vital importance, because it is in Israel’s interest to ensure that this majority does not diminish, and this can only be achieved if the majority of Jewish Israelis understand that there is a correlation between the rights and living conditions enjoyed by Israel’s Arab citizens, and the chances that they will not turn against the state.

This complicated reality is undoubtedly reflected in the new political constellation created by Israel’s 36th government, and the way the Jewish opposition speaks of and relates to the Arab MKs. The new reality is that for the first time in the history of the State of Israel an Arab party is a member of the coalition, even though not of the government (Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am, was not interested in joining the government for the same reason that for many years the haredi parties preferred not to join – in order not to share responsibility for all the government’s actions).

Once before, we were close to this situation when a minority government consisting of the Labor Party and Meretz (after Shas left the second Rabin government in September 1993) relied on the five MKs of the two Arab parties represented in the Knesset at the time – Hadash and the Arab Democratic Party – for their votes on many issues, without actually joining the government or the coalition. This support from outside the coalition was paid for with improvements in the status of the Arabs in Israel in numerous fields, including, for example, the number of Arab civil servants.

The active participation of Abbas’s Islamist Ra’am Party in the coalition is certainly a game-changer, because for the first time an Arab party is an influential player in the coalition, and a sum of NIS 30 billion for the development of the Arab sector in Israel, and solving its most burning problems in the next five years, is part and parcel of the budget that is expected to be approved by the Knesset imminently.

The majority of (if not all) the members of the Likud, the haredi parties and Religious Zionist Party claim that this is illegitimate, though it is not clear whether what disturbs them is the fact that without Ra’am the “Government of Change” would never have been formed, the fact that the status of the Israeli Arabs is being upgraded, or both. Of course, the Joint List, which is also in opposition, welcomes the change, though it resents the fact that it is Ra’am, which is the mover and shaker on the Arab side.

MK Mansour Abbas (Ra'am), October 4, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)MK Mansour Abbas (Ra'am), October 4, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

The unrest in the Jewish opposition manifests itself primarily in personal attacks on Abbas. He is mocked as being the acting prime minister of this government even though he is not a member of the government, and of having received NIS 30 billion (spread over five years) as a personal bribe, even though the sum is earmarked in the state budget for dealing with specific spheres and issues in the Arab sector (including unbearable internal violence), and cannot be used by Abbas as petty cash.

The habit of the Jewish opposition to refer to the Arab MKs at large as a fifth column, who are more concerned with Palestinian political ambitions, and with supporting Palestinian terror than with the daily problems of the Arab population inside Israel, is a further manifestation of the fact a large part of the Jewish population of Israel finds it difficult to accept the new reality of an Arab party being a member of the coalition, and the consequences of this new reality.

Whether the new reality will continue to develop, or whether a return of a right-wing religious government will reverse the trend – only the future will tell.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement, and recently published a book in Hebrew ‘The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job,’ soon to be published in English by Routledge.