For 73 years, relations between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities have adhered to a certain status quo, which has had some ups and plenty of downs, but all in all remained static. Each side knew its place. The recent cycle of elections – four in two years – seems to have disrupted this alignment.
For the first time, large parts of the Jewish population can distinguish between the different elements of the so-called Arab parties, and are even willing to accept some of them as partners in running the state. Can this maneuver, which began as a political necessity for the camp that wants to ouster Benjamin Netanyahu and continued as a life raft for the prime minister himself, become a tectonic shift that will change the face of the state?
Attorney Ameer Fakhoury, the director of the research center of the School for Peace in the Arab-Jewish community of Wahat al-Salam-Neve Shalom and an associate leader of the Shared Nationalism research group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, weighs in on those questions.
Over the past year, did the position of the Arab community within Israeli society truly undergo an irreversible, historic change?
Fakhoury: “There’s no doubt that this is a new game. Let’s take three unprecedented developments in this period, at least in terms of public visibility. One is coalition negotiations between the Arabs and the center-left: the well-known photograph of Benny Gantz with the Joint List’s Ahmad Tibi to his right and Ayman Odeh to his left. That’s something we’ve never had before. While Yitzhak Rabin had an agreement with Tawfiq Zayyad, it was hush-hush – there are no pictures.
“Another photograph is that of Odeh and the Arab Knesset members going in to President Rivlin on the red carpet. There’s a large symbolic dimension to that; it’s the Arabs’ entrance into the Israeli political community. After all, the de facto translation of a ‘Jewish state’ is rule by Jews over Jews and non-Jews. A Jewish monopoly on power. There’s definitely an attempt here to change that.
“And the most unprecedented occurrence was the speech by [United Arab List Chairman] Mansour Abbas. If I had told you five years ago that three TV stations would stop their newscast to broadcast a speech by an Arab politician saying what he thinks about the composition of the coalition in Israel, you would have said I was joking.”
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We also saw “Abu Yair” (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic nickname, “Father of Yair”) visiting Umm al-Fahm to have his photo taken with the millionth person to be vaccinated.
“Yes. A revolting racist offensive by Bibi turns into a love offensive using the logic of the Abraham Accords. What did he say in Umm al-Fahm? ‘We are embracing Arabs in Abu Dhabi, why shouldn’t it be so with you?’ That was his first application of the logic of the Abraham Accords to Israel. After all, all the Arabs recognize Israel and are drawing close to it, so will we, the Palestinians in Israel, lag behind? No, we’ll join that love fest. But it’s a love offensive for very political reasons – it’s clear that Abbas was whitewashed not because he’s so different from Odeh, but because the right wants to launder his image.”
Even if it was done for cynical political reasons, it might make them a permanent player in the political game.
“Perhaps. It’s at the level of unintended consequences, very complex processes that are hard to predict. It’s possible that Abbas, having gotten in during this suspension of national consciousness, will bring material achievements that will unintentionally strengthen the national consciousness. Why are people flocking to Abbas? Because of material and existential distress. If you solve them, you allow space for the development of a national consciousness that opposes the regime. Another unintended consequence is the creation of a Palestinian shtetl within Israel.”
“Abbas’ entry into this game is more or less the acceptance of the logic of tribes in Israel. For the first time, the Palestinian Arabs are clearly becoming a tribe, completing the order of the tribes as denoted by President Reuven Rivlin. This is no longer national politics that divides the map into majority and minority, but tribal politics among four tribes, with the Palestinians saying, ‘Okay, we have nothing in common, everyone is looking after their own community,’ and they’re compelled to accept the loss of the principle of citizenship.”
Why? Isn’t representation the principle of citizenship?
“No. To receive basic protection from crime, I don’t claim my citizenship – I need political power. It’s necessary to enter as a tribe, and also for my tribe to enter the political community and take power. To a certain degree it’s Shas-style politics. But there’s a big difference between Shas and Abbas. Shas makes demands of the political center. It is not content with its shtetl, it wants to change the state. It’s the same with the secular public and the religious Zionist movement. No one is content with their ghetto; the ghetto is the power base, but it has demands about the character of the state. In contrast, the Palestinian ghetto is more insular. How does Abbas express that? ‘You Jews will choose a prime minister and I will play with whoever you choose.’ That’s entering and exiting at the same time. I am part of this game, but only within my ghetto.”
Wouldn’t you define the focus on the occupation and on Israel’s policy in the West Bank as a demand regarding the whole country?
“With Abbas, that simply does not exist.”
So Abbas, like most of the Arab world, is cashing in the Palestinians and getting closer to Israel.
“Abbas says: I am a member of the Palestinian people from the remnant of the Palestinians who stayed in Israel. That is not Israeli-Arab talk, that is Palestinian-Arab talk. But when we move from what he says about himself to what he’s doing with it, then there’s a salient difference. He’s saying that because of the difficult existential conditions of Palestinian society, because of the split among the Palestinians and the feebleness of the Palestinian national project, because of what’s happening in the region and the Abraham Accords, I am now setting this matter aside. I am now looking after my group. These are different priorities.”
So are the shifts over the past two years just shifting priorities, or is it a historic development?
“Israel is binational, but its politics is uni-national, certainly when its government is uni-national. This, now, is the encounter between them. Demography meets national politics, and now the action starts. This is the first intensive meeting after 73 years. Where will it lead? To the Palestinians’ transformation into a tribe? It really is difficult to predict, but it’s definitely a fascinating time. A new period, territory where no one has trod.”