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Is Israel ready for an Arab party to join a coalition government?

While Arab citizens have had the right to vote since Israel’s founding, even the leaders of liberal Jewish parties have ruled out forming a coalition that relies on Arab support to secure a parliamentary majority. But then, so have the Arab parties themselves.

For Jews, it’s been a matter of doubts about Arab allegiance to the Jewish state; for Arabs, an unwillingness to support harsh government policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

But there is change. In a poll, 63% of Israeli Arabs said they wanted to see Arab politicians join a coalition government. And Ayman Odeh now says his Joint List would be open to joining a center-left government.

Israeli Jews aren’t yet ready. The problem is not simply that the parties are Arab, argues political scientist Gideon Rahat. “If they take part in a government that has to deal with things like national security, this might be problematic for both sides,” he says.

But Dahlia Scheindlin, a pollster and consultant for leftist parties, says, “I’d like to think that one day Israelis could change their minds. One reason they haven’t is that they had not been asked.”

TEL AVIV

Ayman Odeh, the head of Israel’s Arab parliamentary bloc, released a trial balloon ahead of the country’s upcoming elections that would break a taboo as old as Israel’s 71 years: include Arab parties in the governing coalition.

“The truth is we could be the real deciding factor in this election,” he said after announcing the idea that his coalition of several Arab factions, the Joint List, would be open to joining a center-left government in the aftermath of the Sept. 17 election.

From the point of view of the basic rules of democracy and coalition mathematics it hardly seems a radical notion, especially with Israel’s center-left parties running a self-proclaimed last-ditch effort to “save democracy” and oust longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Without us the right-wing government will not be replaced,” Mr. Odeh told the Associated Press in August. “We can’t do it alone, but without us it can’t be done.”

Israel defines itself as both a democracy and the world’s only Jewish state. But are Jewish Israelis ready to have an Arab party join the government?

For now, especially in a highly polarized climate where the right-wing establishment is painting the Arab electorate as disloyal and dangerous, the answer seems to remain a resounding no. But the very act of having the idea floated for the first time, argue some on the left, seems to be having some effect.

“I’d like to think that one day Israelis could change their minds,” says Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and consultant for leftist parties. “One reason they haven’t is that they had not been asked.”

Traditional resistance

Arab citizens have had the right to vote since Israel’s founding, but even the leaders of liberal Jewish parties have ruled out forming a governing coalition that relies on an Arab party to secure a parliamentary majority. And, in a nod to the often-awkward contortions of political life here, so have the Arab parties themselves.

One reason is that the Jewish-Arab split is not just between ethnicities or cultures, but between competing nationalisms. For most Israeli Jews, their long-standing objection has been rooted in the assumption – mistaken, say some analysts – that the allegiance of anti-Zionist or non-Zionist Arab parties would first be to Arab regimes and groups over Israel, and that their agenda would be fixed on Palestinian national issues, not domestic Israeli ones.

And the Arab parties themselves – the most outspoken critics of Israel’s treatment of their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza – have been wary of being in government out of concern it would make it seem they endorsed Israeli military actions in those territories.

Among Mr. Odeh’s conditions for joining a coalition are restarting peace talks with the Palestinians and nullifying Israel’s controversial nation-state law, passed in May 2018, that defines Israel as a Jewish state foremost.

But there’s an undercurrent of change afoot, too, as Arab citizens who make up some 20% of the population have become increasingly integrated in the country’s economy – working side by side with Jewish Israelis in hospitals and offices, studying together in universities.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

A father casts a ballot together with his children in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, Israel, in parliamentary elections April 9, 2019. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a new government, new elections were called for September 17.

With that integration have been indications of an increasing identification as Israelis first and Arabs second, and a growing call to their politicians to take part in the political system to address their everyday needs, such as equal access to housing and employment.

According to Mohammad Darawshe, director of planning, equality, and shared society at Givat Haviva Educational Center, 83% of Arab citizens polled say they want to see their parties be a support net from the outside of a center-left government, and 63% would want to go further and see Arab politicians join a coalition government.

“I think it’s natural that a marginalized group that suffers from discrimination would want to, or even dream of, being part of decision-making,” says Yousef Jabareen, a Joint List lawmaker.

National security

The Joint List’s conditional willingness to be part of a government coalition is directed at Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party that is neck and neck with Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud in polls. But Mr. Gantz, a retired military chief of staff, has said that although he sees Arab citizens as “equal and influential in every way,” he would not bring Arab parties into a coalition, citing “diplomatic reasons.”

Mr. Jabareen, the Arab lawmaker, says he sees this as a “clearly racist statement.”

But Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, argues that the problem is not simply that the parties are Arab, rather that they are not Zionist.

“They reject the basic idea of a Jewish state. So, if they take part in a government that has to deal with things like national security, this might be problematic for both sides. That is the delicate question,” he says.

He sketched out a scenario in which war broke out with Hamas in Gaza and the Arab party’s cabinet member would say he or she could not take part in approving military action.

“It’s a problem of legitimacy,” he says, arguing a government based on Arab party support would not be deemed legitimate by most Jewish Israeli voters.

Yaakov Karbassi, a shopkeeper in Tel Aviv who immigrated from Iran, says bringing Arab parties into the government was out of the question.

“It just could never be. Show me one Arab Knesset member who ever said anything good about Israel,” he says. “Furthermore, we could never work with them on security issues.”

The one precedent for Arab party involvement in the government was in the mid-1990s under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when a deal was made for Arab politicians to tacitly support Mr. Rabin’s minority coalition from the outside. At the time, Israelis and Palestinians were negotiating the historic Oslo peace accords.

“A good beginning” for now, Professor Rahat suggested, would be a return to this model. “It worked really well, the Arabs got a lot of programs and funding in return for their support.”

Fearmongering

The coalition-joining conversation has been taking place against the backdrop of a new round of fearmongering against the Arab population led by Mr. Netanyahu himself. In the previous election in the spring, the prime minister had made stirring up fear against Arabs as a fifth column a central part of his campaign. And trailing in opinion polls in 2015, he issued a televised warning to his supporters on election day that the Arabs “were going in droves to the polls.”

This week Mr. Netanyahu succeeded in pushing his Cabinet to approve a so-called camera bill that would deploy surveillance cameras in polling stations on election day. The bill, considered a veiled attempt at suppressing the Arab vote, was rejected as “aberrant and flawed” by the country’s attorney general and was blocked in committee Monday from coming to the Knesset floor for a vote.

Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said after the bill was blocked that the damage had already been done: “It has already caused harm by injecting bald-faced lies into the public political discourse under the premise of preserving the ‘purity of elections.’”

But Gilad Halperin, a Jewish Israeli and Joint List voter, says that even in this time of backlash against Arabs he remains encouraged by the push toward inclusion by the party and its supporters.

“This is how things start, there is the repression, and then there is the pushback,” he says.

“Maybe Ayman Odeh will be like Moses who led his people out of the Land of Egypt but could not get them across to the Promised Land,” muses Arik Rudinitzky, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute who specializes in the Arab vote. “But eventually I think this will happen – especially if the Arab parties continue to focus less on national issues and more on civil ones.”

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