Opinion

To Bring About Change, Israel's Arabs Need More Than Increased Representation in Parliament

Jack Khoury
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A Joint List conference in Sakhnin during the September 2019 election campaign.
A Joint List conference in Sakhnin during the September 2019 election campaign, with Chairman Ayman Odeh in the center.Credit: Barak Braun
Jack Khoury

Over the past several days, there have been growing calls, including from Haaretz's Gideon Levy, for Arabs to vote in droves in Israel's general election on March 2 as the best response to all of those who are spitting in their faces.

That was Levy’s message (“Arabs of Israel: Enough Begging,” February 13), which was translated into Arabic and gained wide circulation among Israel’s Arabs. Levy and all those advocating for increasing Arab representation in the Knesset are correct. There aren’t that many other options left for Israel's Arab population.

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Voting in the election with the goal of influencing the domestic Israeli political arena is the right tactic. Up to now, the Arab community has never exploited its electoral potential to the fullest, and until that happens, the extent of its influence will remain a matter of dispute.

And yet, the 13 Knesset members of the Joint List, an alliance of Arab-majority parties, didn’t block the passage of the nation-state law, nor did they prevent the passage of the Kaminetz law (which steps up enforcement of construction violations and is directed primarily at Arabs).

Those 13 lawmakers were also Knesset members when the “deal of the century” was presented by President Donald Trump, including the provision calling for land swaps that could put 300,000 of Israel's Arab citizens under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. As a result, those who are advocating for a boycott of the election and those who are merely apathetic and see no reason to vote have grounds for arguing that Arab Knesset members’ influence is very limited in any event and will continue to be so even if there are more of them.

But increasing Arab representation to 15 seats or even beyond that could indeed bring about a change and dictate a new reality that neither Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could ignore. Practically speaking, that change is already taking place, at least in the media. When in the past had Arab Knesset members received so much exposure in the mainstream Israeli media?

The Joint List’s Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi have been jumping from one news studio to another to convey their messages, and not a day goes by without hearing or seeing an interview with an Arab member of parliament. While they may not always deliver the right messages or successfully present them, at least they are getting exposure and that says a lot in the Israel of 2020.

More Arab lawmakers in the Knesset 

Would boosting the number of Arab lawmakers suffice to bring salvation to Israel’s Arab citizens? The answer is no. The Arab society is not particularly resilient and if you delve into its current situation, you understand that it is in deep crisis. Real change in the Arab society will not come about solely by virtue of its Knesset representation. It’s an important factor, but it won’t improve the situation on its own.

Those familiar with the Arab society know that one of its most influential forces is local government. Every mayor is a mirror of what is going on under him, and from that perspective, the situation is grim. As long as loyalty to clans and tribes and ethnic communities continues to play a role in setting the political agenda in most Arab communities, it’s difficult to talk about substantive change.

Such change won’t come from the Knesset or the national government. On the contrary, they will only continue feeding the distress and will attempt to destroy any positive model.

You don’t have to be a great sage to understand how this system has worked for decades: The state has controlled Arab society through a policy of divide and conquer, or stick and carrot, and in the process has influenced the identity of the local leadership.

Residents of the Bedouin Arab town of Rahat vote in the Sept. 2019 Knesset election.
Residents of the Bedouin Arab town of Rahat waiting to vote in the Knesset election, Sept. 17, 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

One must admit that over the past 10 years, there have been signs of change in several Arab towns. New, young dynamic council heads who haven’t been dependent solely on a clan or communally-based umbilical cord have succeeded in breathing new life into their communities and in altering the approach to government ministries. And with the help of the Joint List, things are looking a bit different.

Civil society organizations have also gotten involved by providing support and assistance. This triad of local council heads, politicians and social-oriented nonprofit organizations have developed good models for change. But all these components, particularly the nonprofits, depend on the kindnesses of others.

There isn’t a single nonprofit in the Arab society that could survive on its own. They need external assistance, primarily European and American funding (including from Jews). The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, which serves as an umbrella for all these entities, is being managed on a minuscule budget. For years, people have been talking about setting up a foundation for the Arab community, but the matter has remained merely at the talking stage. The Arab public doesn’t have any real leverage over the government.

The role of college campuses

And there’s another factor: University and college campuses, where tens of thousands of Arabs are students. There were years when those campuses were the main place where young Arabs developed their political identities. Most of the current Knesset members and those who were members of parliament in the previous decade started their political activity there. But the atmosphere that facilitated this has nearly disappeared from campuses.

Arab graduates of prestigious professions return to their communities with an academic degree but are ignorant about domestic and international politics. They may have medical or law degrees, but if they get elected as mayors, they behave like the mukhtars during Israel’s first years, when the country’s Arabs were subject to a military administration.

So we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that salvation will come from the Joint List and by increasing Arab representation in the Knesset. In the short run, this might be correct as a tactic, but for the long term, considerable thought should be invested to achieve real change. Of course the potential is there, but in the absence of a strategic plan, change will remain a pipe dream.

But we haven’t lost hope yet.

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