Support for the inclusion of Arabs in politics has reached a new high, with over 29 percent of Israeli Jews supporting both the inclusion of Arab parties in a future coalition and the appointment of Arab ministers.
According to a newly released poll of 762 Israelis conducted in Hebrew and Arabic by the Israel Democracy Institute in late April, 5.2 percent of Jews polled strongly supported including the Arab parties in the government, with an additional 24.1 percent indicating moderate support. This support was most pronounced on the left, where the idea enjoyed 83 percent support as of late April, up from 77 percent in February and 71 percent in September.
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However, support for increased Arab participation dropped on both the right and center after enjoying a brief spike earlier this year. According to the IDI, 43 percent of centrists currently support the idea, more than the 31 percent who were in favor last September but lower than the 47 percent recorded in February.
On the right, only 13 percent are currently in favor, less than the 21 percent who endorsed the idea in February, but a marked increase over the 5 percent who answered in the affirmative in September.
According to Prof. Tamar Hermann, Senior Research Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, the short lived boost for support on the center and right was the result of messages from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “that joining forces with the Arabs is legitimate.”
Ahead of March’s election, the fourth since April 2019, Netanyahu boosted his outreach to the Arab sector, visiting Arab towns and cities and pushing a plan to combat rising crime within the Arab community, hoping to pick up voters disillusioned by the breakup of the united Arab Joint List into two competing factions.
It was a big change in tone for the prime minister who exhorted supporters to vote in 2015 by warning that “the Arabs are going out in droves to vote, bused in by the left” and in 2019 had to apologize after a chatbot on his Facebook page claimed that Israeli Arabs “want to destroy us all.” He has previously described Arab lawmakers as terror-supporters unsuitable for inclusion in a coalition.
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Following March’s inconclusive election, Netanyahu’s Likud party ruled out sitting with the Joint List but did not explicitly preclude the possibility of a deal with the Islamist United Arab List which won four mandates. UAL chairman Mansour Abbas - widely touted as a kingmaker in the Hebrew press - was conciliatory post-election, calling for a “shared life on the basis of mutual respect and true equality” and avoiding raising the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu reportedly courted Abbas during his push for legislation mandating a direct election of the prime minister, with Likud reportedly offering him the position of deputy Knesset speaker in exchange for supporting the measure.
Despite Netanyahu’s courting of the Arab vote, however, support for Arab participation was short-lived on the right and faced strong opposition from many prominent rabbis, Hermann explained.
Over the years, Arabs have made advancements on a variety of fronts and are increasingly seen as legitimate by an increasingly wide swath of Israeli society but that is primarily on a personal and social level, she explained.
“When it comes to the state, vis-a-vis the Arab public, then the situation is not getting any better and since the Nation State Law (was passed in 2018), it has deteriorated,” Hermann told Haaretz. “People are ready to have Arab engineers and accountants but they don't want them as part of the decision-making system.”
“On the right there has always been strong opposition to basing a government on Arab support. In February we saw a turning point but it decreased in two months.”
And while 83 percent support on the left is a record high, the left only constitutes 12 percent of the Israeli Jewish population, she said.
Despite this, Thabet Abu Rass, co-executive director of the Abraham Initiatives, an organization advocating for coexistence and political equality, believes that Israelis are increasingly open to accepting “that Arabs will play a limited role in forming the government.”
“Over the last couple of years we have seen that a process of legitimization of the Arab community is underway,” he told Haaretz, linking this process to the failure of any single large party to form a stable coalition.
“All the major Jewish parties are now (aware) that they need Arab voters and Arab lawmakers,” and campaigned for their votes, which helped to change public perceptions, he said.
However, while support for Arab inclusion in the government has risen, 59.7 percent of Jews still oppose the idea, per the IDI poll.
Israeli parties across the political spectrum have traditionally eschewed Arab support during coalition negotiations and no Arab party has ever been a member of a ruling government. Last February, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said he was “not afraid of talking to any legitimate political party, but the Joint Arab List won't be a part of my government,” citing “deep, difficult and irreconcilable” differences on “national and security matters.”
Despite this, just over a year later, the Joint List recommended Gantz for Prime Minister during a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, the first time an Arab party had supported a specific candidate in decades.
Arab attitudes are also changing. According to the IDI, over 73 percent of Arabs would like to see their parties join a government.
According to an earlier survey conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University this March, 46 percent of Arabs “feel that it in order to achieve benefits for the Arab community, an Arab party should join any coalition that emerges after the elections,” with an additional 18 percent supporting joining a center-left government.
“There is a lot of pressure from the bottom up in the Arab community,” with many young people demanding greater integration into Israeli society as well as solutions to the housing crisis and rising crime rates, said Abu Rass.