Opinion

It's Time for a True Jewish-Arab Partnership

An Israeli-Arab woman casts her ballot in the April 9 election, Haifa, Israel.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

The approaching election campaign doesn’t just give the left wing a make-up exam, as is not infrequently noted, but this exam is open book. The pro-democracy camp must not fail. And in order not to fail this time, it must fix its biggest mistake from the last campaign: the exclusion of the Arab public in the political discourse.

In the last election campaign, we witnessed an unprecedented decline in voter turnout among the Arab community, which fell below 50 percent. All of center-left and Arab parties were affected, losing voters and mandates that might have been theirs had voter turnout among Arabs been equal to the general voter turnout. The Arab parties lost 3 seats in the Knesset. Without this dramatic decline, it’s possible that the parliamentary balance of powers would have looked completely different. Perhaps this second, do-over election would have been prevented altogether.

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The decline in voter turnout can be explained by different factors, including the Arab public’s crisis of confidence in its leaders as well as an instinctive reaction to the breakup of the Joint List in the wake of petty disputes driven by the egos of those who put it together. This deeply impaired the Arab community’s motivation to go out and vote.

Given the high likelihood that the Joint List will reunite to run together, this problem is expected to be resolved in the next election campaign. However, it’s impossible to ignore the negative effect of excluding Arabs from the political discourse. We can gauge the impact of this effect from the findings of the survey we conducted for the Abraham Initiatives at the beginning of the election campaign for the 21st Knesset, together with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation through the Jaffa Institute. According to the survey, approximately 35 percent of the respondents declared that they would not be voting due to a sense of being excluded by decision makers, a lack of faith in their influence, the fact that there is no joint Jewish-Arab party, or a lack of faith in Israeli democracy itself.

Indeed, as the election campaign progressed, the picture has remained the same. By the end of the campaign, we hadn’t heard of anyone purporting to offer an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Arabs heading to the polls in droves” and reaching out to Arabs. This is despite the fact that all along the way it was clear that without a block that could prevent Netanyahu from forming a government, Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz had no chance to do so either. At the polls, we saw the result of the Arab public’s disappointment with the politics of exclusion. This is expressed in many ways, starting with the Jewish parties’ decision to identify as Zionist (thus, by the way, excluding Arabs from their ranks) and ending with the leaders of the main Jewish parties ruling out the Arab parties as coalition partners as a matter of principle.

Beyond the mistaken political tactics the Zionist center-left chose in disqualifying Arab parties with the excuse that they aren’t Zionists, there is also racism at work, in contradiction to basic democratic principles: No one would think to disqualify anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties from a coalition.

Now the pro-democracy camp has been given a second chance. It must take advantage of it in order to change direction, include all those forces that aspire to full equality – especially the Arabs – in coalition discussions and forge true partnerships with their leaders.

We know this is possible because it happened in the past, when the government of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin relied on the Arab parties as a blocking constituency, but also because this is happening today on the municipal level in all of the mixed Arab-Jewish cities: Lod, Acre, Haifa, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ma’alot Tarshiha, and Upper Nazareth.

Each of these city councils have coalitions comprised of representatives of both communities, including Arab parties. Most of them are led by mayors representing right-wing parties. Additionally, though far from sight, is the notable coalition of the Histadrut labor federation between Hadash and a list of parties, including Labor, Likud and Shas.

The success of this model is clear evidence of the changes transpiring in Arab society. The new generation, more educated and informed about its rights than its predecessors, demands equality as well as involvement and participation in political life. If this works in other political spheres, the average Arab citizen asks, then why not in the Knesset and in the government? But precisely in the most important sphere of them all – national politics – this partnership still seems too far off.

Arab citizens are interested in active and productive politics that will improve their lives and status. This requires us to be prepared to go outside the lines, “to play the game” and not settle for the role of the eternal complaining oppositionist. For Arab citizens, the Jewish-Arab partnership must be based on humanist values, cancellation of the Nation State Law, full equality and the advancement of peace between their country and the Palestinian people on the basis of the establishment of two sovereign and independent states.

After 71 years of separation politics, and with half of the Arab citizens not participating in the last elections, the time has arrived to attempt the politics of Jewish-Arab cooperation, with full and equal Israeli citizenship at its center.

Dr. Abu Rass and Be’eri-Sulitzeanu are co-directors of the Abraham Initiatives, a Jewish-Arab organization for the advancement of integration and equality between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.