Opinion |

Israel's Arab Knesset List Is Too Important to Democracy to Fail

The power of community's leaders, as wielded by 13 Knesset seats, gained Arabs in Israel the billions of shekels in the national budget that they desperately needed

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Members of the Joint List in the Knesset, June 2016.
Members of the Joint List in the Knesset, June 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

Government Resolution No. 922 from the end of 2015, which sought to correct the budgetary discrimination against Arab citizens, was an incredible accomplishment for the Knesset’s Joint List, which worked hard to get it formulated. It was a milestone both for the country and the Arab population within it, because it wasn’t a one-off plan but a permanent corrective to discriminatory budget mechanisms, one that provided for the allocation of billions of shekels, not just the pennies we’d gotten used to, with clear objectives and close monitoring of the implementation.

The application of the resolution is being felt on the ground. That’s what Arab mayors are saying and it also emerges from a status report on the resolution’s implementation issued recently by the Social Equality Ministry. Representatives of the Arab community, among them members of the Joint List, local council heads and senior officials, are full partners in both developing and implementing the program, and civil society organizations, both Arab and Arab-Jewish, are constantly working toward its realization.

The program was imposed on the Netanyahu government and approved only at the cabinet’s third meeting about it. That is precisely where its strength lies: Confirmed anti-Arab politicians were forced to vote in favor of spending 15 billion shekels (about $4.25 billion) for the benefit of those they hate. At this crucial juncture, the “deep state,” in the language of political science – the government bureaucracy that truly looks out for the public’s interest – forced the hand of the political leadership.

So why is this turnaround not reflected in the media? Well, it is only natural that someone who has been coerced into something will be angry and try to reduce the program’s positive impact on public opinion. The incitement of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers against Arabs was the package in which they marketed their defeat by the deep state; rather than creating a supportive environment, the radical right is working to balance out the “sin” it committed in approving this process by creating a toxic environment during its implementation. Thus an important opportunity for strengthening the reconciliation within Israeli society is being lost.

But that’s been the way of the right from time immemorial: to wrap any positive step in incitement. For example, to turn every stage of Palestinian prisoners releases into a hate-fest.

However, Arab politicians, partly because of this incitement but primarily because of internal disputes, almost killed off the plan. As a result, any mention of a new sports hall built in an Arab community or a new bus line is considered praise for Netanyahu and not an achievement for the Arabs or their Jewish democratic allies. This conveys a lack of self-confidence, as if Arabs can’t achieve anything unless there is something dubious going on.

So please note that this important achievement took place mainly by realizing the power of the Arab community, as wielded by a single Knesset list with 13 seats, and no less because of the understanding that the Knesset is not just a place for expressing opinions, for all that that’s important, but also a place to accomplish things. We’ve seen Arab MKs working to change things, and this plan is the result.

In response to the bizarre claim that improving the lives of the Arab population comes at the expense of the national struggle, we must say that the opposite is true. Every school built in the community actually strengthens Palestinian survival.

Meanwhile, a rotation plan that got messed up because of an irresponsible act by former MK Basel Ghattas, which forced him to resign, could break up the Joint List. Instead of everyone making way for the entrance of Niveen Abu Rahmoun into the Knesset in the spirit of the rotation agreement, things have gone wrong and people are starting to lose confidence in the ability to actually maintain a “joint” list.

They say “a butterfly can flutter its wings over a flower in China and cause a hurricane in the Caribbean.” Yes, there is such a thing as the butterfly effect. We must hope that the unity effect will be stronger than the effect of what Ghattas did, and that the Joint List will be preserved, for the sake of both the Arabs and Jewish democrats.