The Jewish Left Needs the Arab Parties, and Vice Versa

One united opposition is the only way for both blocs to make a difference for Israel and their constituents.

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Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog (center) embraces MK Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List at the Knesset, March 30, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Much has been said about the opposition of the Hadash and Balad parties to classifying Hezbollah as a terror organization, and before that, about the meeting of Balad MKs with families of slain terrorists whose bodies had not been returned for burial. These two events seem to have brought to a head a continuous trend of extremism, especially in terms of rhetoric, by Arab politicians in Israel and raise justified concern and condemnation. However, we should also take into account the fact that the Arab public is also worried about the wave of extremism that it sees on the Jewish side, and, what is particularly painful, on the Zionist left, headed by the Labor Party.

The very change of the Labor faction’s name to Zionist Union is perceived as excluding non-Jews, but the steps that came afterward – the support by Zionist Union for barring MK Haneen Zoabi from running for Knesset; the party’s vote for a law extending the ban on family unification (when one spouse is Israeli and the other a Palestinian from the territories); joining a coalition in the Knesset Ethics Committee to suspend Balad MKs from the legislature; endless aggressiveness and preaching from the Knesset rostrum; and the unfortunate statement last week by Zionist Union chairman, MK Isaac Herzog, that the party must distance itself from the image of “Arab lovers.” These are all understood by the Arab citizens of Israel to mean that the Zionist left has crossed all boundaries and has joined the crowd that is delegitimizing them.

Unfortunately, neither side is wrong. The extremism of recent years is mutual and it stems from two basic reasons. The first is the fact that over the years the Zionist left and the Arab political representation have become almost completely segregated. The Zionist left looks to Jews only, takes into consideration only their needs, feelings and sensitivities, and the Arabs, as far as the Zionist left is concerned, do not exist. The Joint Arab list, for its part, is only interested in Arabs, and so it does not bother to stop and ask itself whether statements about Hezbollah or Palestinian violence might alienate a good many Jews, and might be better left unsaid.

The second reason involves the unbearable number of years that the Zionist left and the Arab parties spent in opposition, without setting actual policy, without taking actual steps. The political wilderness and having been pushed to the sidelines led both camps to invest their energy in endless clarification of their own identities to their imagined audiences, frequently by means of further polarizing the relationship between them. The Jewish left devoted itself solely to establishing its Zionist, security-focused, centrist image, while the Arab politicians worked hard purely on inflating their positions as proud Palestinian nationalists.

It may be assumed that if they had created a coalition framework or acted as a bloc in the distribution of funding, the establishment of community centers, the recognition of Bedouin villages or promoting the peace process – no one would have had the time to talk about Hezbollah or disqualifying Knesset members. Moreover, political cooperation would have forced them to take the other side’s audience into consideration, Jewish or Arab, if only out of an interest in preserving the partnership.

The political war between the Zionist left and the Joint Arab List is very bad for the opposition. It splits it into a Jewish opposition and an Arab opposition, and prevents the creation of a single, unified block to face off against the right wing. It hurts the left both politically and morally, because it strikes a severe blow against voting rates among Arabs and undermines the possibility of presenting the entire public with a broad, powerful camp that can be persuasive in its ability to form a government.

Without the Arabs and their political representatives, the left will not return to power. Without the Jewish left, the Arabs will never be able to participate in formulating and repairing Israeli policy. The Zionist left and the Joint Arab Lists need each other. They must come to their senses, look farther ahead and instead of fighting, sit down and put together a contract as a joint opposition, as a basis for political cooperation that could form a bloc in a future government.

Such a contract should contain everything both sides can agree on – and there is a lot – without blurring ideological gaps between their positions. There would be no better news than this for people who aspire to replace the Netanyahu government.