It is no secret that despite their integration into many quarters of Israeli society — medicine and academia, in particular — Israel’s Arab citizens remain as marginalized as ever in the political sphere. The parties in the Joint List, which represent most Israeli Arabs, are all routinely shunned from participating in the government by dint of their identity beyond their positions on specific issues. Despite the fact that the Joint List will end up being the Knesset’s largest opposition party if a unity government is formed, the chances of Aymen Odeh being elected opposition leader by the other opposition parties will be slim. For all intents and purposes, when assessing Israeli coalition math, the number to start with is not 120 (the number of Knesset seats) but 120 minus the seats held by Arab parties.
This reality has become even starker in recent weeks. While supporters of Israel’s nation-state law repeatedly stressed that it was not meant to disenfranchise Arab citizens but only applied to the nebulous concept of national sovereignty beyond individual sovereignty, leading Israeli politicians are taking great pains to demonstrate the opposite. Earlier this month, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich tweeted at Odeh that Jews are the greatest hosts in the world and “that is why you are still here. At least for now.” When Avigdor Lieberman unveiled his vision after Yom Kippur for a unity government in order to break the coalition negotiation deadlock, he declared that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not join a narrow left-wing government “supported by the list of subversives,” referring to the Joint List.
Smotrich and Lieberman head the group of Israeli politicians most hostile to Israel’s Arab citizens and their integration into Israeli politics and society, but they are not alone. It is a rite of passage for candidates for prime minister to declare that they will not form a government with Arab parties, and that only Zionist parties will be included in potential coalitions. While Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2015 Election Day warning that Arabs were coming to the polls in droves is the most infamous example of implying that not all citizens’ votes should be deemed equally valid, it is certainly not the worst. In this recent election cycle, Netanyahu pushed unsupported conspiracy theories that Arab parties had engaged in election fraud last April that stole the election from Likud, and attempted to pass a law over the objections of the attorney general, the Knesset legal adviser, and the Central Elections Committee that would have allowed private citizens to bring recording devices to polling stations in a transparent attempt to intimidate Arab voters. And while Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has never been so blunt, he has also spoken about any government that he leads being comprised only of Zionist parties.
Were the issue simply an acceptance of Zionism, that would still be something of an unreasonable expectation for Israeli Arabs, who have not spent two millennia yearning for Jews to reclaim political sovereignty in their historic homeland. But when Jewish parties that view Zionism as illegitimate — such as the ultra-Orthodox UTJ, whose members will not serve as ministers in any government so as not to legitimate Zionism as an enterprise — are acceptable to both sides of the political spectrum, it is clear that the roadblock that is placed in front of Arab parties is not fealty to Zionism alone.
To be sure, historically the willingness to incorporate Arab parties into the government has been a two-way street, as Jewish parties have been unwilling to accept them while Arab parties have been unwilling to join any Zionist government. But in the past election, that two-way street was transformed into a one-way boulevard. Not only did Odeh state his willingness to sit in a government under a certain set of conditions, almost all of which involved more investment in the Arab sector and the end to institutionalized discrimination, but for only the second time Arab parties recommended a candidate for prime minister. Not only are Israel’s Arabs evincing a newfound willingness to engage in Israel’s political system beyond it being a symbolic form of protest, they are increasingly building a distinct Israeli identity. The notion that Israel’s Arab citizens are waiting to join with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and override Israel’s system of government is a misnomer, if it ever were accurate to begin with. The Arab protests across Israel over the past weeks are not about doing away with Israel, but about being treated fairly as Israelis.
Supporters of Israel constantly tout its Arab citizens, who not only vote but serve in the Knesset and on Israel’s High Court, as evidence of Israel’s robust democracy. Praising the inclusion of Israeli Arabs in politics while simultaneously arguing that their presence in government is out of bounds is both cynical and a missed opportunity to capitalize on recent trends. Treating Israeli citizens, irrespective of their ethnic background, as less than full members of the state is the best way to ensure that they work against the state rather than work to be a full part of it.
Michael Koplow is policy director at the Israeli Policy Forum. His column appears monthly.