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Gabbay May Not Want Them, but Would Arab Knesset Members Have Joined a Labor Government?

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Arab-Israeli parliament members and candidates join hands after the announcement of the Joint Arab List in upcoming elections, February 2, 2015.
Arab-Israeli Knesset members and candidates join hands after the announcement of the Joint Arab List in upcoming elections, February 2, 2015.Credit: Reuters

A politician disappointed with Shimon Peres once said that Peres was only concerned about his new friends. His old ones he already had. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the attitude of Labor Party leaders toward the Arab parties. Those leaders actively court the votes of the center and the right, on the assumption that the Arab parties would never suggest to the president that a right-wing candidate form the government. Labor chairman Avi Gabbay is no different than his predecessors.

The disappointment on the left over his ruling out of a future coalition with the Joint List was expected. But if there’s already disappointment, what about the Joint List itself? Would its members be willing to join a government headed by Gabbay?

The answer is no. The party that represents the Arab public, which constitutes 21 percent of the Israeli population, has no interest in being a member of any government. They were not a part of the Rabin or Barak governments, and even during the euphoric Oslo days they provided parliamentary support but never considered entering the government. The Arab parties over the years have demanded equality, cooperation and a just distribution of resources, but unlike the ultra-Orthodox parties, which try to insert themselves into every government no matter who heads it so they can deliver the goods to their voters, the Arabs don’t want to sit in the government. The diplomatic-security issue takes priority over the problems in education, health, infrastructure and welfare.

The security reality provides potential for daily political friction. A government that bombs Gaza or expands settlements or is simply incapable of ending the occupation imposes collective responsibility on its members, and that’s the last thing the Arab parties want. It would be fascinating to see MK Ahmad Tibi as health minister, or MK Ayman Odeh as housing minister. They could institute amazing changes to benefit the Arab population. There are many Arabs who want to see their MKs take part in managing the state’s affairs. But the Joint List is offering a tough deal: End the occupation, establish peace and equality, and then we’ll talk.

Under those circumstances, Gabbay is simply telling the truth. Of course he could have put it more elegantly by saying, “In a government led by me we’d be happy to see any Arab party that accepts our guidelines,” but that would be a hollow PR statement. The truth is better than hypocrisy.

At this stage Gabbay is acting in a practical, opportunistic manner, whose aim is to get as many votes as possible from Yesh Atid and maybe even from the right-wing parties. This is also what’s behind his statements against evacuating settlements. The Joint List also prefers the practical approach of addressing the broadest common denominator in Arab society over what could be perceived as collaborating with a government that isn’t ending the occupation. It might, however, behoove them to learn something from the experience of politicians with an all-or-nothing attitude.

Former Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, who led the party to 15 seats in 2013, was once asked why she refused to join a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Her answer was that he wouldn’t let her carry out her policy. That struck me as rather self-indulgent. With the current political map no party with 15 seats can implement “its” policy. At best it could get control of three or four important ministries and revolutionize them, and exert veto power on fundamental issues. Yacimovich would have been able to implement part of her policy, but she chose zero. That’s what the Arab parties have done to date as well.

Gabbay doesn’t need the Joint List as it’s currently composed in his government, but that doesn’t absolve him from building cooperation with Arab society, with which the Jews have a lot in common, whether we like it or not.

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