Bringing Israel’s Palestinian Arabs back into the political equation

When Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday 17 March they will do so at a critical time in Israel's relations with the Palestinians

When Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday 17 March to elect their 20th Knesset, from which a new governing coalition will be formed‎, they will do so at a critical time in Israel's relations with the Palestinians. They will also be voting at a time of increasing US and European frustration with Israeli actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs).‎ Yet solving the Palestinian conflict seems to have hardly featured in Israel’s 2015 election campaign.

Even after the bloodiest round of fighting in Gaza to date and recurrent Palestinian lone-wolf attacks in Jerusalem, Israeli voters are more preoccupied by domestic issues, such as Israel’s widening socio-economic gap –amongst the highest in the OECD area –and the future of Israel’s Jewish democratic character. In fact, according to a survey conducted in February, only 19 percent of Israelis view the Palestinian question as‎ the most important issue.

Once taboo, opposition to a two-state solution has become a rallying call for right wing politicians, not just within Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Homeland but also within Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud. Even centre-left Labour seems to have moved away from the traditional formula of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Labour’s candidate for Defence Minister, Amos Yadlin, advocates Israeli annexation of the major settlement blocks in exchange for a withdrawal from the roughly 80 percent of Palestinian land that lies east of the security barrier –an initiative that falls spectacularly short of Palestinian expectations.

The lack of urgency afforded to solving the Palestinian conflict by politicians contrasts sharply with assessments by Israel’s security community, including Mossad’s current chief Tamir Pardo, who view continued occupation as an existential threat greater than Iran’s nuclear programme. Beyond the immediate security implications of instability in the OPTs, security officials warn that inability to achieve a two-state solution will lead to a binational state where Jews are a minority, with all the dangers that entails.

But the fundamental problem remains that Israeli society has not reached the point where it mandates its leaders to take the tough (and politically divisive) decisions necessary to end its occupation. Barring a blow to the status quo, the room afforded to Israeli politicians will only allow for a tinkering of current policies towards the OPTs, and will certainly not be enough to alter the overall trajectory of Israel’s settlement project.    

If change and an end to occupation is to come from within, then Israel’s Arab population will have an important role to play. Israeli Arabs may make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, but the three Arab parties (Ra’am, Tal, Balad) have historically been politically weak and ideologically divided. The raising of the electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset to four mandates has however forced Arab parties to come together with the Jewish-Arab Hadash (the former Communist party) to form the “Joint List”led by the charismatic Israeli Arab Ayman Odeh.

The formation of a Joint List is expected to boost voter turnout amongst Arabs from 56 percent in 2013 to at least 67 percent, the average amongst Jewish Israelis. The List also looks set to collect a number of protest votes from Jewish Israelis. As a result, the Joint List could end up with as many as thirteen or fourteen seats in the next Knesset, possibly making it the third largest party, ahead of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Homeland and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

The chances though that the Joint List will enter into a ruling coalitions are close to nil considering that Arab parties are treated as political pariahs by Jewish politicians and have never been invited to join a government. Arab politicians for their part also seem to have ruled out the possibility. As Odeh explained, “the agenda of any government will be a Zionist agenda. It will continue with the occupation, it will continue with the settlements. We can’t be part of such a government.”

While the Joint List may have made ending the occupation a campaign issue, like their Jewish counterparts Israeli Arabs are more preoccupied by socio-economic inequalities. Addressing domestic problems may therefore mean compromising on ideology in favour of a pragmatic approach that enables it to forge partnerships with Jewish parties. Balancing ideology with pragmatism though will require a broader debate within Israel’s Arab community over their own relationship with the Israeli state and Palestinians living in the OPTs, and how they can square the circle between their Israeli citizenship and their Palestinian identity.

Providing the Joint List is able to juggle the widely varied ideologies of its constituent parties and does not fall apart after the elections, it will pose serious challenges to an Israeli parliament that has been far more interested in passing anti-Arab legislation than in defending the interests of its Arab citizens. And indeed, the rise of the Joint List is occurring as Israeli society has lurched to the right, becoming ever more ethnocentric. In fact, the Joint List owes its very emergence to the recent legislation that raised the electoral threshold to a level that threatened to leave individual Arab-majority parties out of parliament altogether. And indeed, anti-Arab rhetoric has become mainstream, including amongst leading Israeli politicians.

During a TV debate Israel’s Foreign Minister Lieberman accused Ayman Odeh and Arab Members of the Knesset (MKs) of acting as a fifth column who should be tried for incitement and sedition. In follow-up comments, Lieberman added that Arab citizens who are disloyal to the state deserve to be decapitated. Perhaps most egregiously, no Jewish political leader to the right of Meretz seem to have called him out for his comments.

Bringing Israel’s Arab population back into the political equation would also raise serious questions over the nature of Israel’s Jewish character, at a time when the Knesset has been debating a “Jewish nation state”bill aimed at emphatically placing Israel’s Jewishness above its democratic character. Arab Israelis also fear that this bill would formally make them second-class citizens, although many feel that with rampant discrimination in practically every field, the bill would merely codify and cement an already existing reality.

It seems therefore that effective Arab representation in the Knesset could not have come at a more important time. An emboldened Joint List that shows a willingness to engage in Israeli decision-making process has the potential to significantly alter political dynamics within the Knesset, even more so if the Joint List becomes the main opposition party (and Ayman Odeh leader of the opposition). A strong electoral showing will also give Arab MKs the legal right to a seat on the prestigious Knesset Intelligence Committee, despite what is certain to be ferocious opposition from many Jewish MKs who habitually accuse Arab parties of cooperating with Israel’s enemies.

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This piece was originally published here by the Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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