On the eve of the 9 April 2019 elections to the Knesset in Israel, more continuity than change is in store. The campaign of the left-center parties fails to garner a minimal majority. The creation of Kahol-Lavan, a fresh "catch-all" party, headed by ex-generals and composed of a mix of leftist and rightwing public figures, does not do the job. Neither the weaknesses of the existing most rightwing government have changed the minds of its supporters – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is accused of corruption and fraud, a violent clash with Gaza continues, and no solution has been found for the high cost of living and housing.
How do Palestinian-Arab citizens fit into this campaign? Do they make any difference? Is Israeli politics a completely Jewish game?
Arab Participation in Knesset Election
Palestinians constitute 18% of Israel's citizen population and 15% of its eligible voters. Participation rate was 63.5% in 2015 compared to a national rate of 72%. It is expected to drop to around 55% because of the Arab public's anger with the dismantling of the Joint List of Arab parties.
These Arab participation rates are significant for several reasons. First, the potential of 18 Arabs out of 120 Knesset Members in Israel's multi-party and fragmented political system makes a difference. Second, Arabs vote in spite of their realization that their vote is ineffective in gaining power and changing policy. Third, it has to overcome the boycott of the election by Islamists and other radicals and the support of the boycott by a third of the Arab public. And fourth, Arabs' willingness to vote has to contain the intensification of their detachment from the state caused by the government's de-democratization and anti-Arab steps, culminated by the enactment in July 2018 of the nation-state law that makes Israel the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people, Arabic non-official language and promotion of Jewish settlements a state obligation.
By voting to the Knesset the Arabs realize their citizenship, belonging to the state, belief in democracy, and desire to elect Arabs to represent them and to voice their protest. Contrary to many commentators who argue that Arab citizenship is hollow, recurrent Arabs' voting to the Knesset shows their appreciation of their citizenship and strong sense of attachment to Israel.
Arab Party Pluralism
There are today four Arab political parties. All of them are independent, state-wide, permanent, nationalistic and ideological. Until the mid-1990s there were no Arab national parties because the state did not tolerate them. These parties are led by ambitious and highly educated public figures, drawn from all strata of the Arab population, not just from the clans and aristocracy.
The Arab parties represent four political streams. The first and closest to the Jewish left is the Arab-Jewish Hadash (headed by Ayman Odah), whose backbone is a Communist faction and a credo is Arab-Jewish cooperation. The second is Ta'al (headed by Ahmad Tibi), standing for modernization and pragmatism. The third is Ra'am (headed by Mansur Abas) that raises the banner of Islam. And fourth is Balad (headed by Matanes Shehadah) that promotes Palestinian nationalism, Pan-Arabism, binationalism, autonomy for the Arab minority, and other nationalist goals.
All these parties embrace Palestinian nationalism and two-state solution. They also share the unofficial rejection of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the decline to unequivocally condemn Palestinian violent resistance (terrorism in Jewish eyes), both are legal grounds for outlawing a party in Israel. These are the reasons for the disqualification of Arab parties (Balad in 2019) from time to time by the Knesset Election Committee. Yet, the Supreme Court has continued to overturn such decisions, holding that the right to vote and be elected is higher than the ambiguous threat to democracy.
Toward the 2015 election, the Knesset increased the threshold for representation from 2% to 3.25% in hope to reduce Arab representation. In response, the four Arab parties created the Joint List, winning 13 Knesset Members and becoming the third biggest party. Toward the 2019 election, the Joint List broke up by personal rivalry, initiated by head of Ta'al, Ahmad Tibi. To survive, the parties re-grouped into two lists: Hadash-Ta'al and Ra'am-Balad. This coupling is incidental, but perhaps the former is more ready for cooperation with Jewish parties than the latter.
Strikingly missing from the mature and genuine Arab party pluralism is an Arab party that accepts Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in exchange for treatment of Arabs with equality, trust and dignity.
The Arab Vote
In 2015 83% of the Arabs voted for Arab parties (grouped in the Joint List) and 17% for Jewish parties. This is why the Jewish parties in 2019 do not have Arab candidates in electable positions and do not electioneer in the Arab sector. The small Meretz party with its two Arab candidates and to some extent the Labor Party are exceptions.
The record low voting for Jewish parties expresses the Arabs' belief that Arab parties truly represent them in ending occupation of the West Bank, transforming Israel from a Jewish to a binational state, redistributing national resources in their favor, and empowering them. Yet, the Arabs expect the Arab parties to deal with their day-to-day needs and to cooperate with the Jews, and accuse them of not doing so. In a representative public opinion survey I took in 2017, 88.2% of the Arabs said that the Joint List should concentrate its efforts on tackling the daily problems of the Arab community and 75.8% thought that it should talk to the authorities and Jewish parties in order to advance Arab interests.
Moreover, the overwhelming Arab vote for Arab parties testifies to the growing empowerment of the Arab minority, who no longer fears sanctions from the Jewish establishment if not voting for ruling Jewish parties.
Arab Voting to a Political Bloc
Israeli politics is a bi-bloc system, election is decided by the bloc size, and party power stems from membership in the bloc. Arab parties have three options in this regard. The first is boycott of bloc politics because Arab parties sharply disagree with the ideology and policy of both blocs. The Arabs usually reject this option because it disempowers them.
The second option is to form a third, independent, Arab bloc that maximizes its gains by negotiating with the two rival Jewish blocs. This option is not available, however, because the gulf between the Jewish rightwing bloc and Arab parties is abysmal to the extent that both sides totally reject each other.
The Arabs are left with the third option of affiliation with the left-center bloc. Arab parties have been counted since the early 1980s as part of this bloc which in 2019 also included Kahol-Lavan (headed by Benny Gantz), Labor (headed by Avi Gabay) and Meretz (headed by Tamar Zandberg). To form a government, any bloc needs to win 61 or more Knesset seats.
For the political right, Arab representation in the Knesset is both a burden and an asset. Deprived of Arab support, the political right incurs the burden to win a Jewish majority. But not depending on Arab vote, it is free to use Arabs as an internal enemy, with the implication that only Jews can be loyal citizens, Jews on the right are the true patriots, and the left-center bloc is potentially disloyal for containing "the Arab parties which strive to destroy Israel," as Netanyahu declared during the 2019 election campaign.
Arab parties are also both a burden and an asset for the left-center bloc. They are an obvious asset because they automatically contribute to it around 13 Knesset Members, so that it is enough for it to get only 48 seats to reach a majority of 61. Arab parties constitute, nevertheless, a severe burden because association with them makes the left-center bloc an easy target for the political right and because they are useless for building a coalition government. While to ascend to power, it is enough for the rightwing bloc to reach 61 seats, the left-center bloc needs to reach out to parties on the right to form a government. As a self-cleansing strategy, the leading Kahol Lavan party proclaimed that it would not build a government on any Arab support.
Arab parties function in the Israeli parliamentary politics as permanent opposition parties, do not participate in coalition governments and are even not invited to negotiate joining them.
Arab parties are excluded from coalition governments because the Arabs are both a dissident and an enemy-affiliated minority. They reject both Zionism and Israel as a Jewish state. They are part of the Palestinian people and the Arab world who are hostile to Israel. As such they are suspected of potential disloyalty and barred from national governments.
Yet, the Arab parties themselves are not willing to join government coalitions because they refuse assuming governmental responsibility for occupation, expansion of Jewish settlements, siege on Gaza, political stalemate with the Palestinians, free Jewish immigration, denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees, and many more pro-Jewish policies. In spite of this self-exclusion, the Arab public is more pragmatic, supporting participation of Arab parties in government coalitions in order to improve its status in the Jewish state. Many Arabs and Jews on the left think positively of the historical precedent of Yitzhak Rabin minority government in 1992-95 that was backed by the Arab parties without being part of the government. This possibility was beneficial to both sides but reinforced the political right's blame on the government for illegitimacy (lack of Jewish majority) and triggered Rabin's assassination.
The political right has been in power in Israel most of the time since 1977. Its advantages over the left-center are Jews' growing shift to the right and religion, the rightwing outlook of most of them, and their greater demographic growth. Under Netanyahu the right became illiberal, calling the left collaborators with the Arabs who ostensibly seek destruction of the state, and intensifying the image of the Arabs as the Jews' ultimate "other".
In defense, with the exception of Meretz, the Jewish left-center parties in 2019 disavow any leftist trace and any intention to cooperate with Arab parties. In response, the Ra'am-Balad list declared denial of support for a possible Kahol-Lavan government and Hadash-Ta'al list conditioned its backing on fulfillment of various demands. This is the first time that Arab parties threaten to disempower the left-center bloc by not being counted in and boycotting it. Moreover, if Ra'am-Balad, the less popular Arab list, fails to win the minimal 4 seats to enter the Knesset, the left-center will have no chance whatsoever for even attempting to build a government.
The Arab minority is not powerless. Arab parties make a difference in Israeli politics, render conflicting services to the two Jewish-Zionist political blocs, but permanently do not share power.