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Israeli Arab MKs rally in Beersheba against the Prawer Plan.(Photo by: YASSER OKBI)
Instead of failing to restrain PM, Arab MKs can engage Israeli people
Unlike Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, the representatives of the Arab citizens of Israel have seats in parliament, as well as public funds for political activity.
The 13 representatives of the 446,583 voters of the Joint List faction spend most of their time trying to restrain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the Knesset. There they are in a permanent minority, trying to achieve that tantalizing goal while being ostracized by the rest of the parliament – by the coalition, as well as by the other factions in the opposition.

That was the context for the Arab MKs turning to the UN last week, where they hope to have greater traction contesting the recently passed Jewish Nation-State Law.

Although many in Israel didn’t like it, turning to the UN is a purely legal, non-violent and legitimate act. It is ludicrous to accuse Arab MKs of treason or of terrorism for diplomatically appealing to an organization that the State of Israel is part of.
But the question must not be whether it is a legitimate act but rather whether it is effective.

The United Nations fails at stopping the bloodbath in Yemen, Syria and Sudan, in ending the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, and in tackling global warming. Salvation – or even an amendment to the Jewish Nation-State Law) will not come from the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York or in Geneva.

The conflict between Jews and Arabs will be solved here, in Israel and in Palestine, by both Jews and Arabs. It is time to shift away from a strategy of restraining the government to one of engaging broader parts of society in a vision of democracy, equality and peace.

Should the leadership of the Joint List faction decide, it could renounce its role as the outcast protagonist of Israeli politics. It could focus instead on building bridges between the two peoples and contribute to strengthening humanism in Israeli society – the humanism it rightly argues is consistently withering away.

Unlike Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, the representatives of the Arab citizens of Israel have seats in parliament, as well as public funds for political activity. Also unlike King, Gandhi and Mandela, Arab MKs have failed at recruiting many sympathizers from the majority of society.

It is not due to a lack of talent. There are highly educated, experienced, and charismatic leaders among the members of the Joint List, certainly no less than in the coalition parties. It is due to a lack of trying.

THEY CAN turn to the education minister and demand resources for developing a peace and reconciliation education program in which Israelis would get to know their neighbors – both in Arab towns within Israel, as well as east of the Green Line. They can lead an exciting nationwide campaign to make teaching Arabic mandatory from day one in school.

They may demand that the Interior and Housing ministers approve new mixed cities, to recapture the complex beauty of Haifa’s coexistence, or at least to establish new Arab cities, proportionate to the construction of new Jewish ones and to the growth of the population.

They may call on the Defense and Economy ministers to develop joint trade and industrial zones along the ‘67 borders, such as Jenin-Giloba, which greatly contributed to security and prosperity in Jenin, thanks to the re-entry of Arab citizens of Israel on weekends. One can envision such zones inaugurated in Hebron-Arad or in Kalkilya-Kfar Saba under the leadership of Arab MKs along with figures from the Israeli, Palestinian and international business community.

They might present both the Religious Affairs minister and the Palestinian Authority with a plan for equal and free access to all holy sites for all religions, from Joseph’s Tomb in the Nablus area and the ancient synagogue in Jericho, to the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif and other important sites to Islam and Christianity west of the Green Line.

It is easy to become disparaged from the current far-right wing government (as well as from the opposition’s poor performance). One may lament the dissolution of the old “liberal global order” in which protecting human rights was at least proclaimed to be a universal imperative.

It is possible to do things differently. When members of the Joint List were invited to plan together with the government on its five-year economic plan 992 for Israel’s Arab Sector, they agreed to cooperate and they made a difference. It turns out that not all is bleak and hopeless – not even in the current government.

Ayman Odeh, Aida Touma-Sliman, Ahmad Tibi and the rest of the Joint List should know that with less symbolism and with more pragmatism, it is possible to harness great parts of the Jewish population for a joint struggle for equality and peace. Who knows? You might even get invited to share your success in the UN.

The writer is a political activist and a PhD candidate at the Frankfurt Goethe University.

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