Arab political parties in Israel: United under duress

Uniting forces for the elections should not mean the Arab minority in Israel must lose its vibrant pluralism

Yossi Mekelberg
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At the conclusion of the 1948 war, Israeli military rule was imposed on Israeli Arabs, making them strangers in their own homeland. Never have Israeli Arabs felt so insecure and under attack than since the end of this military rule over them in 1966. A combination of continuous verbal racist attacks, years of discrimination and hostile legislation left many in the Arab community feeling vulnerable, though not despairing. Ironically, the attempt to make the Arab parties disappear by increasing the threshold for entering the Israeli parliament—the Knesset—may have prompted unity among Arab Israelis as never seen before. The decision by the Knesset to increase the threshold to 3.25 per cent could have potentially eliminated all three current Arab parties in the Israeli legislature from having any representation. To make things worse the call for fresh elections at the end of last year, two years ahead of schedule, caught the Arab parties unprepared and with a very little time to address this new electoral challenge. The dilemma was either to form a bigger political bloc to ensure Arab representation, or run separately and at best risk a considerable reduction in the number of seats, if not complete elimination from the 20th Knesset. Considering that each of the parties occupy a number of seats very close to the new entry threshold, this was a real political danger.

A good showing in the ballot box might force the Jewish society to re-think this approach and see the Arab society as partners with equal rights

Yossi Mekelberg

The response of the Israeli Arab parties surprised even the most optimistic about unity within the community. Despite obvious ideological and political differences among the members of such a political alignment, all the parties currently represented in the Knesset - Balad, United Arab List-Ta'al, Hadash and Raam - decided to face the forthcoming elections as one united list. It was a pragmatic and politically mature response to the risk of having reduced or no representation at the heart of Israeli politics, especially at a time when the challenges to their constituency are mounting.

Patronizing

I have never thought that it is desirable for the Arab society in Israel to be represented by one party, the same way that no one expects the Jewish population to be represented by a single party. It is patronizing, and, dare I say, represents sheer racist bigotry, to expect less ideological pluralism and healthy democratic debate among Arabs than among the Jewish population. It is rather expected that the new party, named simply the Joint Arab Party, is bound to face a real struggle to maintain unity after the elections. After all, it is a blend of secularists, Islamists, communists, free marketers and much more. Yet, in a country where a very senior member of the government, Avigdor Lieberman, contemptibly equates the new Arab alliance to Hamas, and even more viciously to ISIS, unity within the community is paramount. The despicable comparison of the legitimate representatives of the Arab minority in Israel, to those who at war with Israel or those who commit heinous crimes against innocent people, sadly received hardly any condemnation. Hence, it is no wonder that ideological differences in Arab Israeli politics are put aside for the time being. The new alliance presents a united front aimed at battling the unacceptable and unjustified marginalization of a minority, which composes 20 percent of the Israeli population and whose loyalty is constantly questioned. A minority, which with very few exceptions, have been loyal to the state throughout its existence. Only a few months ago, the Israeli government and the Knesset were on the verge of passing the Nation-State bill, which would have legally legitimized the discrimination and marginalization of all non-Jewish citizens in Israel. It even offered to revoke the status of Arabic as an official language of the country. The legislation was postponed only due to the calling of the elections and might be back on the agenda after them.

If public opinion polls leading up to the elections are anything to go by, the new Joint Arab Party will increase Arab representation in parliament to somewhere between 12 to 14 seats. In order to fulfill their electoral potential they need to mobilize the Arab voters to turn out in big numbers. Traditionally, Arab citizens turn out in significantly lower numbers for the election than their Jewish counterparts, and many do not vote for Arab parties. It is the task of the new list to convince their constituency that a united, strong and credible voice on their behalf will prevent and reverse discrimination and intolerance.

Arab society has suffered

For many years the Arab society has also suffered from the fact that their representatives have always been denied access to the central government, and have never been invited to join any of the Israeli governments. Consequently, many of their towns and villages did not enjoy their fair share of public resources, resulting in a severe shortage of housing, denial of access to state land, higher than average unemployment, inferior infrastructure and lower attainment in schools. In a recent survey published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, 70 percent of the Arab voters, argued that they rate the improvement of their social-economic conditions as an even higher priority for them than resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is also longing among the majority of them to be part of the next coalition government, many do not even rule out joining a Netanyahu government, though they would prefer a government led by the leader of the Labour Party, Yitzhak Herzog. It represents a desire by the majority of Arab Israelis to normalize their lives as a minority in which their rights as equal citizens are fully respected by the Jewish majority. Since Israel’s establishment, the Arab citizens of Israel have had to face push-pull demands from the state and their brethren in the region, especially the Palestinians. The first has always demanded from them to overstate their loyalty, and the latter criticized them for what they saw as cozying up to the Israelis. Indeed, there are some radical elements in the Arab community, which question the right of Israel to exist, but they are a tiny minority, which the Right wing in Israel exploits cynically to smear the rest of the Israeli Arab population. In a country where chants such as “Death to the Arabs” can be heard way too frequently in football stadia, and where the hooligans of price tag (whom it would be more fitting to name price thugs) harm Arabs and their property, but rarely face justice in the court, it is no surprise that the Arab minority is looking for active influence from within government.

The real test of the United Party will come the day after the elections. If the party does well enough and can help the Zionist Camp (composed mainly of the Labour Party), to form a bloc of 61 members of the Knesset, it will end up in a strong bargaining position. It might prevent another Netanyahu government and crown Herzog as the prime minister. Unfortunately, they are expected, even by the Labour party, to support its government from the outside. A good showing in the ballot box might force the Jewish society to re-think this approach and see the Arab society as partners with equal rights and not as second-class citizens and perhaps even as a bridge to the rest of the region. Uniting forces for the elections should not mean the Arab minority in Israel must lose its vibrant pluralism, but instead act to create a unity of purpose for the benefit of the Arab constituency and for the entire country.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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