The Israeli Left Has Failed, and Arabs Aren't Going to Keep Waiting for It

Jack Khoury
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Israeli election blliboards in the Bedouin town of Rahat, last month.
Jack Khoury

A well-known police academy training exercise involves hinting to potential suspects under questioning in hopes of getting them to respond. Usually it’s the main suspect who feels the pressure to respond – reminiscent of the saying that “a thief thinks every man steals.” That’s how Odeh Bisharat’s op-ed "Arabs will not bend their principles to fit a twisted ‘reality’", which criticized an analysis I wrote on the Arab vote should be understood.

I understand Bisharat’s anger and that was felt by others outraged at the criticism of the left, including in Haaretz. I don’t intend to quarrel with Bisharat in the newspaper, but it’s important to refine a few points that Bisharat chose to ignore.

The left wing – as reflected in parties and civil society organizations – has been a decisive failure when it comes to setting a new diplomatic and civil agenda in Israel over the past two decades. There is no other way of explaining last month’s election results or the racist legislation that has mushroomed in Israel, or the fact that the public agenda has been almost entirely controlled by the right wing – to such an extent that the swearing-in at the Knesset of a right-wing racist party with fascist characteristics is accepted as a routine matter. We soon might even see its members sitting around the cabinet table.

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It’s a process. Arab citizens didn’t vote for the Kahanist leader of the Otzma Yehudit faction, Itamar Ben-Gvir. On the contrary. No Arab citizen, from the right or the left, has failed to denounce him. He and his colleagues on the fascist right well remember the opposition they encountered when they tried to visit Arab towns in Israel – Sakhnin, Umm al-Fahm and Arara. They weren’t faced down by “left-wing activists,” but by Arab residents.

With all of the resources and means at his disposal in the last election campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu barely scraped together enough Arab votes for half a Knesset seat. Even if there was a drastic drop in Arab voter turnout, the vast majority supported either the Joint List or the United Arab List. They didn’t flock in droves to the right or even the Zionist left. So the country’s Arab citizens can’t be accused of losing their identity.

Nevertheless, a minority group that time after time has been met by refusal on the part of the Jewish majority to accept them as a partner will not wait another generation until the left-wing camp openly, courageously comes to its senses and takes a different path. Instead of being defensive, the left should explain to the “naïve” Arab citizens what alternative it is proposing other than its own political survival.

An analysis of the election results should set off warning bells. Roughly 230,000 citizens voted with their feet, turning their backs on the Joint List, Meretz and whatever else remains of the left. These people didn’t vote for the right. Instead, they sought mainly to send a message to the Arab parties and the left that they were not caught in the left’s syndrome of waiting for salvation.

Those same Arab voters who in March 2020 turned out massively to vote because they were promised that that time around, they would finally be seen as real partners, again found that instead of being accepted, they and their representatives were abandoned. And the goal of repealing the nation-state law and the Kaminitz law have remained just a dream of sorts.

If on the center-left, the thinking was that Arab citizens would patiently wait until this political camp was so kind as to accept them as real partners and not as a fig leaf, last month’s election proves that it won’t happen. And as if that weren’t enough, last week Israel’s Arab citizens were in for more news when it turned out that Meretz and the Labor Party were prepared to sit in a government headed by Yamina leader Naftali Bennett. The important thing was removing Netanyahu from office.

Such an approach could have been legitimate if it involved just a tactical retreat prior to a real breakthrough. But how does a Bennett premiership portend such a breakthrough? How would such a government benefit the Arab public? In actuality, it involves nothing other than an internal Jewish Israeli battle for political survival.

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