Explained

Israel Election Results: Why Arabs Are Finally Mingling at Israel’s Political Party

For years, Arab politicians were shunned by Zionist parties — and vice versa. In the space of five short months, that has all changed

Members of the Joint List, including Ayman Odeh, second from left, walking toward the President's Residence in Jerusalem, September 22, 2019.
Menahem Kahana/AP

The decision by the Joint List of Arab parties (or at least most of it) to recommend that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz be given the first opportunity to form a government has been greeted as unprecedented, and even historic. Why is that so, especially as Gantz seemingly has no intention of inviting the Arab alliance to be part of a potential government? Here’s a brief primer on this and other related questions…

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 41Haaretz

Is it true that no Israeli Arab party has ever been part of a governing coalition?

Not only is this true, it is also correct that this is the first time since 1992 that an Arab party has even responded to an invitation to meet with the sitting president in order to give its recommendation for prime minister.

This may not be as remarkable as it sounds, though. For one thing, during its early decades Israel didn’t have Arab parties per se: The first fully Arab faction was the Arab Democratic Party (also known by the Arabic acronym Mada), which was formed in 1988 by Knesset Member Abdulwahab Darawshe after he left the Labor Party in the wake of the first intifada.

In 1992, Mada — which was dedicated to advancing the interests of the Arab citizenry, as well as Palestinian self-determination and the end of the occupation — actually proposed joining the coalition being organized by Yitzhak Rabin, but its demands were rejected by the then-Labor leader. Still, the party agreed to support Rabin’s government in the case of a no-confidence vote in the Knesset (as part of what is known as an obstructive bloc). In return, the Rabin government undertook a number of measures to improve conditions for the Arab community.

Mada was joined in supporting the coalition from the outside by Hadash, Israel’s communist party (which, though principally Arab in membership, has always had at least token Jewish representation). Mada and Hadash had a combined five lawmakers in that 1992 Knesset, while today Hadash is one of the four parties that comprise the Joint List.

President Reuven Rivlin sitting with Joint List lawmakers Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi to learn the next Israeli governing coalition, September 22, 2019.
Menahem Kahana/AP

Why are Arab parties not welcome to sit in the government?

Actually, the rejection is generally mutual, and Mada’s demand to join in 1992 was the exception rather than the rule. Belonging to the government means signing on to a coalition agreement, and agreeing to support the government’s bills when they come up for a vote in the Knesset. It also entails accepting responsibility for the decisions and actions of the government. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved and Israel is periodically involved in military operations against Palestinian targets — be they in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank or Lebanon — no Israeli-Arab politician can be expected to accept the ministerial responsibility that comes with belonging to the cabinet.

Haven’t there been Arab cabinet ministers and deputy ministers before? How was that possible?

Over the years, Arab lawmakers belonging to the Labor Party, Meretz and also Likud have been appointed to cabinet positions — although in most cases they were members of either the Druze or Bedouin minorities, which have historically, and to different degrees, signed onto the Zionist program of the state and weren’t dedicated explicitly to Arab issues.

Additionally, Israeli law does not require that someone belong to the coalition or even be a Knesset member in order to serve as a minister. In fact, one of the ideas being proposed now is that Arab professionals or technocrats be appointed to ministerial positions where their skills would serve them well — such as, for example, health minister.

So what changed to make it possible for the Arabs to want to make a recommendation to President Reuven Rivlin about the next premier?

This question has a multipronged answer. On the most practical level, as Berl Katznelson Center Executive Director Rami Hod explains, “The Israeli center-left has become very, very small, and the realization has developed and sharpened that without the Arab vote, there won’t be any way to create a government that isn’t right-wing.” At the same time, he adds, for Israel’s Arabs it has become obvious that the only way to improve their status in Israel is to play a more active role in politics.

That realization was driven home in recent years by a number of developments, most prominently the Knesset’s passage in 2018 of the nation-state law, which declared Israel to be the national home of the Jews alone. Among other things, it formally demoted Arabic from being one of the country’s two official languages to having “special status” — a rhetorical gesture, perhaps, but one that seemed all the more insulting given its lack of obvious practical significance.

Taken together with a relentless effort by the ruling Likud party, especially during the last two election campaigns, to portray the country’s 1.8 million Arab citizens as disloyal fifth columnists and security threats, the Arabs were energized to come out to vote in large numbers on September 17 in the hope of bringing down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Aug. 29, 2019 photo, An activist taking a selfie with Ayman Odeh, center, and party activists during a campaign meeting in Nazareth, August 29, 2019.
Mahmoud Illean/AP

It is often said that Arab MKs spend too much time talking about the Palestinian national cause and not enough dealing with the practical concerns of their constituents. Did the Joint List’s recent election campaign reflect a change?

It has become something of a truism that Israeli Arab lawmakers spend most of their time making gestures and statements about Palestinian rights and other issues of principle. Even if that’s an exaggeration, there is growing dissatisfaction among the Arab public with their political representatives. Results released this week of a study conducted by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research, at the Israel Democracy Institute, showed that 58 percent of the Arab public believes its political leadership “does not do a good job in representing the Arab community.” In 2017, that figure was 41 percent.

Topping its concerns are demands to repeal the so-called Kaminitz law — a 2017 amendment to the national planning laws that increases penalties for illegal construction (which is rampant in Arab communities, where building permits are very difficult to obtain); despair over sky-high crime rates and violence, and the relative ineffectiveness of the police to prevent or solve crimes; and inequitable expenditure on education for Arab schoolchildren, and on a whole range of services and infrastructure in the Arab communities.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that just because Israel’s Arab citizens have decided to get some skin in the game, they have relinquished their interest in the Palestinian cause. “They have not given up on their national aspirations, and they have not turned their back on their brothers,” says Prof. Tamar Hermann, the political scientist who directed the Guttman Center survey. “However,” she adds, “they recognized that the end of the conflict is not on the horizon, and they have to take care of themselves while things are stuck on the Israel-Palestinian level.”

Tel Aviv University political scientist Prof. Amal Jamal talks about the Joint List’s adopting of a “civic platform,” which, he says, “speaks about amending the nation-state law, [changing] national priorities and a new allocation of resources.”

Hermann says her research shows that, overall, the Israeli Jewish public is sympathetic to that platform. Its problem is with Palestinian national aspirations. “The Jews are willing to give the Arabs money, ready to give them whatever is needed to improve their standard of living,” she says. “But they are unwilling to give them a foothold in the government.”

In the year’s first election, in April, Kahol Lavan paid scant interest to the Arab community or the Joint List. What changed to explain its new approach?

“Everyone says that Bibi’s campaign — the incitement and hatred — is what did it,” says Hod, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “And that’s correct, I agree. But you also have to say that Bibi, because he really does understand politics better than anyone else, realized that one of the central strategies for him to remain in power was to delegitimize the Arab vote.”

Which is why, as early as four years ago, Netanyahu infamously warned on Election Day that the Arabs were voting in droves. “He attacked,” says Hod, “because he also understood that [the help of the Arab vote] was the only way for the center-left to come back to power. He knows the numbers.”

At the same time, though — although it is never highlighted in Likud’s political campaigning — Netanyahu’s governments have been generous and rational in directing economic resources to the country’s Arab communities, and even invested in a major new effort to increase and improve police services there.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conversing with Joint List leader Ayman Odeh in the Knesset, December 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

According to Jamal, last week’s election “was important for showing the limits of the parties, and the role that demography is playing in politics. If the Arab community sees that this time, as a result of the support it won [the Joint List has won 13 seats in the next Knesset] it has more impact on the political system, next time it could jump to 16 to 17 seats. That’s what the [Arab] public wants: To gain as much power as possible and to show gains.”

It took Kahol Lavan, and the center-left parties in general, some time to catch up with what was occurring. According to Hod, Gantz’s party “never imagined in its worst nightmare that it would need the votes of the Joint List. I remind you that [Yair] Lapid got 19 seats in 2013 and he said, ‘I’ll never sit with the Zoabis,’” referring to then-Balad MK and Arab nationalist Haneen Zoabi, but more widely to Arab lawmakers in general. Lapid is now No.2 in the centrist party.

For Kahol Lavan, Hod continues, the April election was “a type of wake-up call. It understands now — and that’s why it didn’t run a negative campaign [against the Arab community] this time. And didn’t speak against the Joint List. You won’t find a single negative statement about the Joint List by Kahol Lavan.”

Doesn’t Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh deserve credit for the new cooperation between his party and Kahol Lavan ?

Absolutely. There is a widespread consensus that Odeh, who has led the Joint List since it came together in 2015, is very much the right man in the right place at the right time.

According to Hod, Odeh,44, is “on his way to becoming a historic leader.” He is the first Arab leader who “reflects the desires and the honest positions of the Arab public,” suggests Hod. “He says, ‘We want to have influence!’ And for a list of conditions that include an end to discrimination and a return to peace negotiations — for all of those things he has said: ‘I am also willing to be part of the coalition and the center-left.’”

A Haifa native, Odeh represented Hadash on the city council there before becoming the party’s director general in 2006. He is good at responding to attacks with humor (for example, he recently called Netanyahu “Abu Yair,” referencing the Arabic custom in which the father is named for his first son), and even courage, as when he was booted from the Knesset earlier this month after protesting a bill aimed at allowing Likud party activists to bring cameras into polling places, supposedly to prevent Arab voter fraud.

Jamal echoes Hod, saying that in Odeh, “We see a leader being crystallized in front of us. Unfortunately for him, he’s from the minority: If he were from the Jewish majority, I think he would have been a good candidate for prime minister.”

According to Jamal, in addition to being a good campaigner with excellent timing and a good sense of humor, Odeh is good at speaking to the Israeli public — that is, to Israeli Jews. “He knows that without some support and empathy in the Israeli public, he won’t have an impact.”

He also speaks the language of universal human rights and, notes Jamal, is comfortable referring to the legacies of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and also the late Israeli-Arab MK and rights activist Tawfik Zayyad.

Whether the Arab communal impulse to take a more active role in public life is ultimately received positively by the Jewish populace, or elicits even more hostile pushback, remains to be seen. But if anyone knows how to have a dialogue with Israeli Jews, it is Odeh. As the Joint List leader himself wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week, “Arab Palestinian citizens cannot change the course of Israel alone, but change is impossible without us.”