Opportunity knocks in Israel’s parliament, where an Arab alliance is now the third biggest faction. But only if Arab and Jewish lawmakers can each adopt some fresh thinking.
The Joint List, a federation of several Arab parties, garnered 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats at the swearing-in ceremony last week, following its triumph in motivating an often apathetic Arab electorate on Election Day.
As of press time, it’s still possible that the two largest parties will form a unity government, which would mean that the Joint List leads the opposition — a position that involves meeting most foreign dignitaries who visit Israel. And if this doesn’t happen, the Arab parties will still be a major force to be reckoned with.
It’s understandable that many Jewish Israelis receive this information with trepidation. The Joint List includes politicians who have taken delight in riling the Jewish public and showing contempt towards the state.
The best known is Haneen Zoabi, who said that the kidnappers of three Jewish teenagers last summer were not terrorists, and that she encouraged Palestinians to place a “siege” on Israel instead of negotiating with it.
Even the criticisms of the most moderate player in the Joint List, namely the Hadash party, which has a Jewish politician among its five lawmakers, often cuts close to the bone as far as the Jewish public is concerned. What is more, it is infuriating in its echoing of Palestinian claims and automatic rejection of contrasting arguments by Israel.
However, the time when Arab politicians can get away with standing on the sidelines and yelling may have just come to an end. They are now in a position to act constructively, to tackle the problems faced by their voters, and to do so as part of the system rather than by raging against the system.
There are very real difficulties facing Arabs in Israel, including poverty, the lack of infrastructure in neighborhoods and a problem highlighted by the likes of the economic ministry and the Bank of Israel, namely discrimination in employment opportunities.
Dealing with such problems is good for Jews as well as for Arabs for all sorts of reasons. Economic improvement for the Arab minority benefits the entire national economy. And the fewer the grievances from Arab citizens towards the state, the better the country’s social fabric and the less chance of violent tensions.
If Jewish lawmakers cooperate with the Joint List and enable it to be an agent of change in the day-to-day lives of Arab citizens, this Knesset session could prove highly productive. In short, Jewish lawmakers have a part to play in pushing the Joint List to become constructive rather than a destructive force.
This is far easier said than done. They will need to restrict sparring with Joint List lawmakers on abstract ideological issues to a minimum and focus on practical matters. And the same goes for Jewish lawmakers on the political right, for whom raging against the Arab parties and proposing legislation aimed against the Arab minority (much of which doesn’t stand a chance of passing but just makes noise and raises tensions) has become the default way for some easy political point-scoring.
But however well Jewish lawmakers conduct themselves, much is in the hands of the Joint List’s lawmakers. Will they capitalize wisely on their Knesset strength? What will the alliance of Arab groupings from a broad spectrum mean — will the Islamists pull it in an extreme direction, or will the moderates be able to show the entire faction the value of constructive engagement?
And here lies the greatest opportunity of the Arab electoral success. It’s a chance for Arab politicians to end the disconnect between them and their voters. They expend huge amounts of energy taking the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some view their Knesset job as a tool in this. “We are part of the national project,” said Zoabi of the Joint List before the election. “We don’t rely on any Israeli government to recognize our rights.” The Arab public sees things very differently.
It overwhelmingly feels that its leaders should deal more with settling daily problems and less with Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians. In the last major survey of Israeli-Arabs conducted by the nonpartisan Israel Democracy Institute, released a year-and-a-half ago, 76 percent of respondents held this opinion.
In the same IDI study, Israel’s Arabs emerge as a group with lots of misgivings and worries about the country they live in, but which wants to change its lot by working within the system. A staggering 73 percent of Arabs even wanted Arab parties to make the ultimate commitment to constructive politics and join coalition governments. This underscores the gulf that exists — the Arab public overwhelmingly favors working inside a government, but to politicians it’s an absolute no-no. A government role isn’t in the cards any time soon, but the party should take seriously the sentiment that went into this statistic.
There is, today, a rare coincidence between what is good for the State of Israel as a whole, for the Arab public, and for Arab politicians in the light of its voters’ expectations. It remains to be seen whether the relevant people will have the resolve and good sense to seize on this.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.