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Israel Election Results in Arab Communities Are a Signal to the Center-left

For the first time, an Arab party can be kingmaker, and crown a prime minister; Mansour Abbas' demands carry some heft, but he understands this and relishes it

Jack Khoury
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An Arab-Israeli woman casts her ballot as she votes in Israel's national election at a polling station in  Tamra
An Arab-Israeli woman casts her ballot as she votes in Israel's national election at a polling station in TamraCredit: AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury

The political arena in Israel is in turmoil. For the first time, the headlines scream, an Arab party can be kingmaker, and crown a prime minister. What a historic change. If before all the votes were counted, the definition of a pivot was embodied by Naftali Bennett, now there is another name at play: Mansour Abbas. An indisputable star, and not just because of the appearance of his avatar on the TV satirical program Eretz Nehederet. His demands carry some heft. He understands this and relishes it.

His demands are not just a matter of protocol. Yes, the nation-state law is part of it, as is the occupation, but not too high on his list. There are more important issues for him, and apparently for his voters. These issues aren’t in the political realm but in the realm of civil matters: a campaign against rampant violence in Arab society, a reform in planning and construction, jurisdiction boundaries, budgets and the recognition of unrecognized Bedouin villages in the Negev. Perhaps the fact that he doesn’t wave the Palestinian flag doesn’t appeal only to his voters, but to his potential partners as well.

And yet, the question remains: is this achievable? Is the State of Israel, having experienced the divisiveness and rifts brought about by Benjamin Netanyahu over the last decade ready for cooperation with its Arab citizens? Ones who are not part of a Zionist party? The common answer is that this is doubtful. It isn’t quite conceivable. Not in the prevailing reality of this country. But there is another answer that relates to the still-incumbent prime minister, whose main interest is his political survival. It seems that for him, all alliances are legitimate.

It would be wrong to assume that Abbas has his eyes solely on a Likud-led government. He and his people keep repeating in conversation that they are not naïve. There is an open door to Likud, but another one to Yesh Atid, or to anyone who listens to the list of demands and is willing to work for their implementation.

In some respects, it seems this situation has imbued Arab citizens with a sense of euphoria, especially United Arab List (UAL) voters. Yes, these people were not part of the scene less than a year ago, when they were part of the Joint List, which then had 15 Knesset seats. When Kahol Lavan said its word, any possibility of cooperation vanished. Now they’re talking differently. After Netanyahu embraced the Arabs in his campaign it’s impossible, or very difficult, to delegitimize Arab voters.

It’s not only the Arab public that sees some fruit that’s ripe for the picking. The Zionist left is also excited. Finally, the Arabs are legitimate partners. People forget that the Rabin government depended on the support of Arab parties from outside the coalition. This support, in addition to the Oslo Accords and the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization, also brought about the recognition of dozens of Arab villages in Galilee.

Many things have changed since then, they’ll say on the left. More extremism, more hatred, more exclusion. It’s a different Israel. There are different starting terms for a historic collaboration in which Arabs (from the United Arab List) are not automatically labeled as “left.” They’re not talking about the occupation or the settlements. Even the presence of the ultra-racist Itamar Ben-Gvir has taken a back seat. Perhaps it’s a price worth paying, something akin to hush money. Anything so that the discussion of civil Arab affairs becomes part of Israeli discourse, not something inimical to it.

Salvation will come from this. Money and resources will be plentiful. Budgets will arrive from the U.S. and Europe and more civil society organizations will arise, moving Arab society forward. This happened, albeit in a different manner, after the riots in October 2000. Results were then seen on the ground, a first harbinger of hope, but these remained at the local level, only temporarily. On a national level, it wasn’t felt. Who remembers it today?

In all the elections since then, the right has only gained in strength. The incitement has only increased. The best mirror for these processes is the incoming Knesset. More than two thirds of the elected representatives belong to the right side of the political map, whether they support Netanyahu or not.

This process of increasing extremism took place against the backdrop of relative security, with no exploding buses as in the early 1990s, with no second intifada of the first years of the millennium. There is some tension with the Palestinians, mainly in the Gaza Strip, but the extremism didn’t seem to come from there. Not from the Iranian threat either. Perhaps it came from the words spoken in Balfour Street, now changed into words of conciliation.

It’s true, we still don’t know who will form the next government (or whether there will be another election). But at this stage it’s clear that conservatism has won, on the Jewish and Arab sides. This was the basis of UAL's campaign, which brought it four Knesset seats. It also brought an internal electoral message: The communist Hadash party, with its liberal values, is no longer the largest Arab party. There is another message: Likud garnered more Arab votes than Meretz did (21,000 vs. 17,000), even though Meretz had a good record regarding the Arab public, with three Arab candidates in its top ten.

That is apparently the bottom line. The Arabs have had enough of slogans and with only apparent cooperation, expressed as one more demonstration in Rabin Square, in meeting with friends in a Tel Aviv bar, or with the posting of “pet Arabs” on a Knesset list. Now they see, at least in theory, that they can be full partners. It may not meet all their aspirations, but in the present situation, it’s better than many could have hoped for.

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