Prior to Israel’s general elections in January, centre-left political parties signed a covenant pledging “to initiate promoting real equality so that within 10 years discrimination between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority will disappear.” It also demands that the state invests 2.5 billion shekels (more than $680 million) annually over a decade to achieve that goal.
Signatories include representatives from the recently-formed Yesh Atid, now the second-largest party in the Knesset (parliament) after the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list; Labour, the third-largest party; and Kadima, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. None of the ultra-Orthodox or right-wing parties took part.
The covenant says Israel must “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” Such sentiments, while laudable, are nothing new. “We have experienced talk and declarations that were never implemented,” said Ramiz Jaraisy, the mayor of Nazareth - dubbed “the Arab capital of Israel,” and the largest city in the north of the country - and chairman of the committee of Arab local authorities. As such, the timing of the covenant arguably warrants more attention.
To vote or not to vote?
It is not outlandish to believe that its main purpose was to galvanize Arab citizens - those of Palestinian origin - to vote, in the knowledge that their participation hinders right-wing parties. Some of the speakers at the signing ceremony urged Israeli-Arabs, who comprise more than 20 percent of the population, to do so in larger numbers than before. Whether this covenant is sincere, or simply an electoral ploy, remains to be seen. “I don’t expect a change in reality,” said Jaraisy. “Prove me differently.”
Several Israeli newspapers published opinion pieces calling on Arab citizens to vote, with the liberal Haaretz even printing an editorial in Arabic. The campaign by Israeli Jews and Arabs to get the latter voting was met with an opposing campaign to boycott the elections.
It is a difficult dilemma experienced by communities in any country that have a deep-seated sense of disenfranchisement and alienation. Do they try to change a flawed system from within, while running the risk of legitimatizing it, or is their disaffection better noticed and addressed by boycotting it altogether?
“On the face of things, it looks like an exercise in futility. At every Israeli general election hundreds of thousands of Arabs cast votes for parties that do little to improve their lot,” The Economist wrote in an editorial in January. “Arab political parties have signally failed to defeat a raft of laws detrimental to them that (Prime Minister) Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has passed in the outgoing parliament.” Arab “despair is the main reason for abstention.”
The treatment of Arabs as second-class citizens goes against Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which says the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants, irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
Such treatment is no longer portrayed as simply a point of view, but is widely acknowledged as fact, though that has not improved the situation. Hence the need for this covenant, which states that the Arab minority “suffers from discrimination relative to other population groups in the distribution of state resources in society and development.”
The New Israel Fund, which describes itself as “the leading organization committed to equality and democracy for all Israelis,” states: “In every Arab community, and in the five mixed cities where both Jews and Arabs live, de facto discrimination is readily apparent.”
Arab citizens “vote, pay taxes and speak Hebrew, yet suffer pervasive discrimination, unequal allocation of resources and violation of their legal rights,” adds the NIF. “Housing, education, and income all substantially lag that of the Jewish majority. Only 3 percent of the land in Israel proper is owned by Arabs; permits are rarely granted to Arab families to expand their housing; and most Jewish towns and neighborhoods remain off-limits.”
The statistics speak for themselves. For example, unemployment among Arabs is twice as high as among Jews; 66 percent of Arab children are deemed poor, compared with 24 percent of Jewish children; and 50 percent of Arabs live in poverty, compared with 20 percent of all Israelis.
Socio-economic gaps between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens are widening year-on-year, according to an equality index published by Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel.
“Racism has long...become everyday, so everyday that we hardly notice it, everywhere,” said Zehava Gal-on, head of the left-wing Meretz political party. Her views are backed by a poll taken three months before the election.
The results reveal that 58 percent of Israeli Jews say their country practices an apartheid system against Palestinians, 49 percent want the state to treat Jewish citizens better than Arab ones, 47 percent want Arabs stripped of their citizenship rights, 59 percent want preferential treatment of Jews in applying for civil service jobs, and 42 percent do not want to live in the same building as Arabs, or have their children go to the same schools.
“This lays bare an image of Israeli society, and the picture is a very, very sick one,” wrote Gideon Levy, award-winning Haaretz columnist and member of its editorial board. “Now it is not just critics at home and abroad, but Israelis themselves who are openly, shamelessly, and guiltlessly defining themselves as nationalistic racists. We’re racists, the Israelis are saying, we practice apartheid and we even want to live in an apartheid state. Yes, this is Israel.”
Despite this, Arab turnout in these elections was three percentage points higher than the previous ballot in 2009 - 56 percent and 53 percent, respectively - confounding widespread expectations to the contrary. “Arab-Israeli participation in national elections...has been spiraling downward for decades,” Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times, wrote prior to the recent vote.
However, the higher turnout did not translate to more Knesset seats for the three Arab parties (United Arab List-Ta’al, Balad and Hadash), which maintained their total of 11. This represents 9 percent of parliament’s 120 seats, less than half the percentage of Arabs in the total population.
Furthermore, participation was still lower than the population as a whole (around 64 percent), and far lower than Arab turnout of 75 percent in 1999. Arab party leaders expressed disappointment that turnout was not higher than it was. It has been stated in various media outlets that if Arabs voted at the same rate as Jews, they would be the second-largest bloc in the Knesset.
Nonetheless, the higher Arab turnout may have contributed to what The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood described as “a major setback” for Netanyahu, “as results gave the narrowest of victories for the rightwing-religious block.”
The surprisingly strong performance of the recently-formed Yesh Atid party - one of the covenant’s signatories - makes its leader, former TV personality Yair Lapid, a potential ‘kingmaker’ in forming a coalition government.
However, he quickly ruled out joining Arab parties in a left-wing coalition to block a right-wing government led by Netanyahu, who was quoted as telling him: “We have the opportunity to do great things together.” This will leave a very bitter taste in the mouths of Arabs who voted, and their leaders who urged them to do so.
The decision has been strongly condemned. It “showed a kind of crude contempt, mixed with a whiff of racism, for those whom Lapid does not consider part of his political camp,” according to a Haaretz editorial. He has “joined those responsible for the dangerous trend of excluding Arabs from the Israeli political process. Their exclusion is a nationalist, undemocratic move” which “increases the alienation that Israeli Arabs feel toward the state.”
Lapid “showed that their participation in the election was for naught, because their representatives are not considered legitimate, even in the view of the new Knesset’s largest centrist party,” the editorial continued. “He cannot conceive of a partnership with an Arab party even on an issue as fateful as heading off the formation of a right-wing government.” This “emits a nationalist stench.”
However, directing such criticism solely at Lapid is odd, given that no Arab parties have ever been included in any Israeli governing coalition, whether left-wing, right-wing or centrist. The only difference with Lapid is that he has verbally expressed the thoughts of his political peers.
This mindset is gravely detrimental to Israel as a whole, not just its Arab citizens, and it will be increasingly difficult to maintain, let alone justify, as this minority is forecast to form a larger proportion of the overall population (25 percent by 2025). “Civil, human and economic rights for Israeli Arabs is an issue crucial to the long-term survival of the state,” according to the NIF.
This view is echoed in an article in the Jewish Chronicle by Doug Krikler and Trevor Pears, co-chairs of the UK Task Force, whose members include the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Zionist Federation, Labour Friends of Israel, the Ben-Gurion University Foundation, NIF UK, and the Rayne Foundation. “Fully integrating the Arab minority is vital to Israel’s prosperity and cohesion,” they wrote. “It is clear that more needs to be done.”
This piece was first published in the Middle East Magazine in March 2013.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash