Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman wanted to limit the Arab representation in the Knesset, so he pushed through legislation to up the electoral threshold from two percent to 3.25%. According to polls, the higher threshold would have meant that at least one of the Arab parties, Balad, the party of Liberman nemesis MK Haneen Zoabi, would have been kept out of the next Knesset. But the Arab parties, against all odds, managed to unify, and it now seems likely that the next Knesset may include as many as 15 Arab members, as opposed to 11 for the outgoing one.
In the previous elections 56% of eligible Arab voters participated, a 3% increase from the elections before that. In the 1999 elections Arab voting rates reached 75% but crashed to their lowest point of 18% in 2001 following the events of October 2000, when Israeli police shot and killed 13 Arab youths. Now, however, Arab voters seeing unity in their camp have a compelling reason to get to the polls and vote.
No one is deluded enough to believe that the Arab parties running on a single list means that there is real unity among them.
There are deep-rooted ideological differences between the various forces; one camp represents a rather secular socialist agenda with historic Jewish-Arab cooperation behind it, another represents the southern (more moderate) branch of the Israeli Islamic movement. Another faction could be described as Palestinian nationalists, focusing more on a separatist identity agenda than on integration into Israel as full, equal citizens. The Arab population of Israel is no more monolithic than the Jewish population. Yet everyone knows that without a united list, 20% of Israel’s citizens would suffer from severe underrepresentation.
Now that unity has been achieved and the Arab voting rate is expected to climb, putting more Arabs in the Knesset, the question of whether the united list would join a future coalition must be presented. The only way the Arab list would join a coalition would be if Isaac Herzog were to form the next government. The Arab parties could either recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that the task of forming a government be given to Herzog, or they could abstain. There is no conceivable possibility that they would put their support behind Benjamin Netanyahu.
Then comes the question of their participation in the government.
Herzog has said that he would like to form a coalition from Meretz to the Right, conspicuously leaving the Arab MKs. He has said that he would call on them to support his government from the outside, in the same way the Arabs supported Rabin’s government.
This coincides with what some of the Arab leaders have said themselves.
It seems quite clear that no Arab MKs would share the coalition benches with Liberman and his party. Indeed, it seems that some of the Arab MKs – mainly from Balad – would refuse to sit in any Israeli government. But the fact that they are running together on a unified list does not preclude the possibility of acting as separate factions after the elections are held.
It is completely conceivable that some of the Arab MKs could support the government from within; it is completely conceivable that there will be Arab ministers in the next government. There has already been an Arab minister of sport, as well as deputy ministers of health and even foreign affairs. If Herzog forms the next government, it is feasible to imagine that it would include Arab members, and not Liberman.
It is high time that the country’s 20% Arab minority sat at the decision-making table. The institutional discrimination against Arabs which still exists after 67 years is not acceptable. It should not be acceptable to anyone who believes that Israel is a democracy.
Yes, it is true that Israel is one of the safest places in the world today to be an Arab, and Arabs in Israel enjoy more freedom and more democracy than in almost any other place in the Middle East. But the comparison of the Arab citizens of Israel with Arabs in other countries is the wrong comparison to make. They should be compared to Israeli Jews, and when that comparison is made there is no argument regarding the existence of discrimination.
As a democratic country we need to confront the much more serious question of how we create a partnership with our Arab citizens in which they feel that Israel is really their country and Israel feels that they are really its citizens.
It is difficult while the Israeli- Palestinian conflict continues, because the Arab citizens of Israel are also Palestinians. They feel empathy for their brothers and sisters living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. But the Arab citizens of Israel do not want to move to the future Palestinian state; they want to remain in Israel. In fact if you examine their claims and demands from Israel, the bottom line is that they are fighting to become full Israeli citizens. They are bilingual and bi-cultural. They study in schools that teach the Israeli curricula. They study Hebrew from the first grade and take the matriculation exams of the State of Israel and then attend Israeli universities. They work in all areas of the Israeli economy and are taking leading positions in the pharmaceutical and health professions all around the country as well as in other fields.
Because of their identification with their Palestinian brothers and sisters, for many Israeli Jews they are always suspect. It is hard to eliminate this suspicion even if the statistics tell a completely different story. Most Israeli Jews think of the Arab citizens of Israel as having a split identity – mostly Palestinian and partially Israeli, but that is not a correct understanding of reality. The Arab citizens of Israel have developed a third identity which is complex but nonetheless genuine. They are both very Palestinian and very Israeli at the same time. If Israel was living in peace with its Palestinian neighbors, this complex third identity would not be threatening – in fact it could be the very thing that Israel requires to open the doors to the Middle East.
The Arab citizens of Israel have often said that they would like to be the bridge of Israel to the Arab world. By including them in the next coalition far-reaching steps could be made to fulfill that vision of opening the Arab Middle East to Israel in partnership by virtue of the partnership that the next prime minister of Israel could create with Israel’s Arab citizens.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.