January 09, 2021
As the Israeli political system steps up a gear in preparation for the 24th Knesset election, there is at last an increased recognition of the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli vote, even among the Jewish-Zionist parties. This is due to the impressive showing of the Arab Joint List in last March’s legislative elections, which yielded 15 seats in the Israeli parliament, thanks to a high turnout that underlined the electoral power of the Arab community, which comprises about a fifth of Israel’s population.
Though the Joint Arab List consolidated the representation of the Arab minority in the Knesset, it is a rather loose coalition of four mainly Arab parties — the communist Hadash, the left-wing Ta’al, the Palestinian nationalist Balad and the Islamist United Arab List, all of which harbor different political ideologies. Hence the Joint List is already showing cracks in its united front, while also being excluded by the Jewish parties from participating in government, leaving Palestinian-Israelis with little influence in the corridors of power.
There is something artificial about the need for all Arab parties to run as one list despite their deep ideological differences. Sadly, what brings those parties together is being discriminated against by the Jewish state and establishment, and the fear that without a united front Arab-Israelis will become further marginalized and their rights will continue to be compromised by hostile governments.
In a genuinely inclusive democratic system of governance there would have been a higher representation of Arab politicians across a range of parties, and along ideological lines and not ethnic ones. In reality, the Jewish parties, including Meretz, which recognizes the equality of all Israeli citizens, hardly ever slot Arab members in realistic positions on the lists presented to voters, and those members are therefore immensely underrepresented. In light of this sorry state of Arab participation and representation in Israeli politics, it is high time to initiate, with a sense of purpose and urgency, a joint Arab-Jewish party whose main article of faith is to ensure that all Israeli citizens, regardless of ethnicity, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation, enjoy the same rights and opportunities, and are free from any form of discrimination.
An Arab-Jewish party would be a first, important step toward rectifying this situation. It would send out a powerful and a positive message about the legitimacy and utility of Arab-Jewish coexistence, especially if it were to gain enough support at the ballot box.
An Arab-Jewish political partnership is a precondition for building a truly pluralistic society, a vision that has many detractors among Israel’s Jews. But what is required is a social-political partnership that harnesses those elements on both sides through whose veins runs the deep belief that coexistence and cooperation between the two communities, embracing diversity in the context of shared liberal-democratic values, is the only path toward a fair, just and healthy society.
The reality is that Arabs and Jews generally live in separate communities with relatively low levels of engagement. With few exceptions most localities are ethnically homogeneous, Arabs and Jews barely socialise, and their interactions are at best on a professional level. Worse, only a few thousand Arab and Jewish children study together; there are just eight bilingual schools, and most of them are primary only. This perpetuates the separate existence of Jews and Arabs, who enjoy a diametrically different experience of growing up and living in the same country, with limited cross-cultural engagement, which hampers the creation of a society in which all citizens feel a sense of belonging and all have an equal stake.
One would have expected that at least in Israel’s few mixed cities such as Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa or Acre, daily lives would be less segregated, but this is far from being the case. In these municipalities nearly all the top administrative positions are held by Jews, yet another example of Israel’s Arab minority complying with their obligations to the state as citizens, but unable to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as the Jewish majority.
An Arab-Jewish party would be a first, important step toward rectifying this situation. It would send out a powerful and a positive message about the legitimacy and utility of Arab-Jewish coexistence, especially if it were to gain enough support at the ballot box. It would have more than an immediate or short-term impact. It would be a big step toward ending the segregation between Jews and Arabs and normalizing genuine collaboration across communities for the benefit of all.
For now, the more traditional parties, Arab and Jewish, are none too keen to embark on such a daring leap of faith that they don’t see as a vote winner; in fact, they fear it would discredit them in their own communities. But they politicians are ignoring the mood, at least among the Arab community, in favour of such a venture. A recent survey reveals that the idea of an Arab-Jewish party is supported by nearly two thirds of Palestinian-Israelis. Above all, this is a clear expression of the wish of most Palestinian-Israelis to become part of Israeli society, in the hope that this will allow them to enter into the heart of the discourse at a time when they are facing deteriorating economic conditions, when there are deep concerns among Arab citizens that not enough is done to eradicate crime and violence in their communities, and while planning and building regulations in their localities are intolerable and discriminatory, as are their employment conditions.
There have already been limited attempts to form an Arab-Jewish party, but these have remained on the margin of Israeli politics; another manifestation of the unhealthy state of the country’s polity, which suffers from deep divisions and rejects inclusivity. There is no better example of this than the relations between Jews and Arabs, which preserves discrimination against the latter and even delegitimises them. A joint Arab-Jewish party, with a strong voice in the Knesset that promotes equal coexistence, could end the current intolerable segregation and discrimination suffered by Palestinian-Israelis once and for all.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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