One of the big disappointments for the left in this year’s Knesset election was the decline of the Arab vote. In the 2015 Knesset election the Arab parties, running together on the Joint List, received 13 seats. This year, the Arab parties only received 10 seats in total. Additionally, the Arab population’s total turnout dropped 15% in comparison to the 2015 Knesset election.
Part of the reason for this drop in Arab vote was the way that the centrist Blue and White party positioned itself. Eager to steal right-leaning votes from the Likud, Blue and White’s leaders ruled out any coalition with an Arab party. They also condemned the leadership of the Arab parties, while still asking for Arab votes for their party.
Unfortunately, Blue and White’s refusal to engage politically with the Arab parties is the rule in Israeli politics. It has been an unwritten custom that Arab parties should not be a part of any coalition government.
This Israeli political tradition hurts the cause of liberal Zionism. Liberal Zionism’s two overarching goals are: 1. Softening the the posture towards Palestinian nationalism with a goal of a 2-State solution, 2. Moving Israel society and government towards a more secular and less religious and ethnocentric position. Arab voters are a natural constituency for such goals. By keeping Arab parties out of coalitions, liberal Zionist parties will often be required to make alliances with religious or rightist parties that will constrain them. Also, preventing Israeli Arabs from acquiring executive power through the coalition depresses their overall turnout and adds seats to rightist and religious parties.
It should, therefore, be a priority of liberal Zionists, in both America and Israel, to find some way for Arab parties to enter the coalition and for Arabs to increase their participation in Knesset elections. How can this be done? Understanding the reason for the unwritten ban on Arab parties provides the answer.
For much of Israel’s history, Israeli Arabs have been viewed with suspicion. Unlike, say, African Americans in the United States, Israeli Arabs are a minority whose principal political movement previously sought the prevention, and later destruction, of the State of Israel. Thus, the fear that these Israeli Arabs act as a “5th Column” has some justification.
Though most polls show that Israeli Arabs would prefer to keep their Israeli citizenship, even after the establishment of a Palestinian State, it is clear that this is not out of any loyalty to the State of Israel. Israeli Arabs do not serve in the army in any large numbers, they often feel uncomfortable with state symbols such as the National Anthem and Flag and they live in isolated villages and go to schools in special systems without any Jewish students.
There is thus a quandary at the heart of having Arab parties enter the coalition. Most Jewish Israelis would not want Arab parties to enter the coalition if their parties were seen as anti-Zionist. In the minds of these Jewish Israelis, having parties like Balad, whose former leader was convicted of spying for Hezbollah during the 2nd Lebanon, or politicians like Ahmed Tibi, who was an advisor to Arafat, receive executive power in Israel would jeopardize the security of the State.
However, if these Arab parties were to either become pro-Zionist, or merge with Jewish parties, or field candidates on Jewish-Zionist lists, then to the Arabs of Israel, this would read as co-option. An Arab party or Arab politician embracing or aligning with Zionism would seems to reject Israeli-Arab’s deep feelings of discomfort with the inherent identity of the Jewish State.
The solution to this problem means threading the needle between these two concerns. Probably the best solution is the formation of an Arab party that declares itself something between Zionist and anti-Zionist. The term non-Zionist could be a useful label here. This party’s political goals and rhetoric could emphasize that it understands and respects that Israel will always have state symbols and mythology connected with the Jewish religion and ethnicity. But, this party would insist that those non-Jewish citizens are not traitors for feeling foreign to this ethno-religious concept and can rightly demand that the public ethos of the state move towards a concept of “equality” rather than “Jewishness”. Emphasizing the mentions of equality in the founding documents of Israel, including Ben-Gurion’s declaration of independence, could be an effective way to argue for this point.
Additionally, though this Arab party could run on an electoral alliance with either the Meretz party or Labor party, it would never formally merge with these parties. In order to attract Arab votes, it can never seem like these Arab parties are simply Zionist stooges. At the same time, having some sort of electoral alliance with the leftist Zionist parties would make this new joint list able to formally enter a coalition government and for its leaders to receive ministerial positions with real power. This would increase the Arab vote substantially.
Jewish organizations in the United States that seek to move Israel leftward should try to help fund efforts to build such an Arab party. Meretz and Labor are already contemplating such alliances. When Arab citizens are able to become active citizens with parties that are legitimized by centrist Israelis, then an alternative to Likud led right-religious coalitions can emerge and liberal Zionists will have a better chance of achieving their policy goals.