The so-called suspension bill approved Monday in its first reading by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee sends a clear message to Israel’s Arab citizens and their representatives in the Knesset: The State of Israel is a democracy for Jews only, and anyone who thinks differently or conducts himself according to a different narrative – even if he belongs to a different people – is liable to be excluded by Israel's legislature.
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Whether this is just a populist bill aimed at scoring political points with the right, or whether it will actually become law, the government and the Knesset have made it clear to the Arab public that its political arena is being delineated by the extreme right, which holds the reins.
Proponents of the law argue that it was precipitated by the meeting last month of the three Balad MKs with Palestinian families in Jerusalem, who had asked for help in getting the bodies of their children (killed by security forces due to involvement in attacks on Israelis) brought home for burial. The well-oiled public diplomacy machine sold the story to the Israeli public as a display of support for the families of terrorists, making everything permissible, including expulsion and standing trial.
This followed the government’s "pilot" project: its decision to make the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement illegal. That went over relatively quietly from the perspective of the Israeli establishment, which measures Arab reaction solely by an index of rioting and blocked roads – not by the anger, disappointment and alienation of citizens who are supposed to be equal in a country that calls itself a democracy.
The message conveyed by the new bill is directly linked to the prime minister’s remarks about “Arabs streaming to the polls in droves” last Election Day, the outlawing of the Northern Branch and uprooting the Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran to build another Jewish community there. And we haven’t even mentioned the diplomatic stalemate and the occupation that gets more entrenched every day. This situation, less than a year after the last Knesset election, bolsters Arab citizens’ feeling of alienation and distrust of the political system, and may lead them to conclude that there’s nothing for them to do in the parliament.
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List, threatened on Monday to resign from the Knesset if any members of his faction are expelled, and one can assume this was no idle threat. Odeh has spearheaded a change in public discourse by focusing clearly on civic issues. In recent months he has worked with faction colleagues and Arab mayors to advance the economic plan for Arab society, and presented it as an unparalleled achievement. This is proof that even from the government’s perspective, the Arab parties and the national organization of Arab mayors are the authentic representatives of most of the Arab public – not the Arab MKs in the Zionist parties or the separatist local council heads. But to date the Arab public has yet to taste the fruits of the economic scheme and it fears for its future, given talk of possible changes and conditions being added.
Meanwhile, Arabs in Israel are exposed each day to more racism, experiencing firsthand mounting violence and seeing their representatives pushed to the margins of the democratic debate. Soon they will surely ask themselves and the Arab political parties what they are doing in the Knesset. The obvious conclusion? It is time to vote with their feet and begin calling out loud for a boycott of the Knesset elections, a call now being heard on the right-wing margins of the Arab political map.
Israeli decision makers and the public must understand that the Arab public wants to integrate and be represented in the country's political system, as is evident from all studies and public opinion polls. But it wants to be integrated on an equal footing, with recognition of its civil and national rights, not as a gray minority that is being absorbed here by the good graces of the Jewish majority. Misrepresentations like scattering budget crumbs or hugging “tame” Arab representatives are doomed to failure.
If current trends continue, the day will come when there will be no need to suspend MKs to set the Knesset free of Arabs: The Arab public will ask its representatives not to run. It will then replace Knesset representation with a civic struggle and remove Israeli democracy’s last fig leaf.