The Arab Elephant in the Knesset

The left wing parties have the best of intentions for helping Israel's Arabs, but like the most right-wing among us, wouldn't dream of publicly forming an alliance with them.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It's absurd. In order to assist Israel's Arab citizens, the parties on the left and center have to keep Arabs out of sight. They have to steer clear of any cooperation with Arab parties and instead put on a nationalistic guise. That's the only way they can pick up a few more Knesset seats from Jewish voters, which could perhaps put them in a position to offer a few more scraps to the country's Arab population after the January 22 election.

Left-wing ideology, but not the left-wing parties themselves, is seen as advocating on behalf of human rights, as a palisade against racism and fascism, as a credo stuffed full of compassion for the needy and downtrodden. In Israel, the Arab parties are also left-wing. They are social-justice leftists because they have no alternative. The Arab Left in Israel developed within an afflicted population that inherently lives and breathes a social-justice ideology fighting injustice and discrimination.

For the Arab parties, there is no option for embracing right-of-center positions on economic issues, of promoting neo-liberalism or a capitalist agenda. There are wealthy Israeli Arabs, yes, but their interests are sufficiently represented by Jewish politicians.

From the standpoint of ideology, what could have been a better match than the Arab parties and the left and center Jewish parties? Just think of the huge potential to make changes to the social-justice agenda. But how could the Jewish parties hatch an alliance with a population that is perceived as the enemy?

The political result is even more tragic. The center-left parties need to keep a clear distance from the Arabs if they want to bolster themselves electorally. Who, after all, would vote for the left-wing Meretz party if it forged a joint election campaign with the Arab Balad party, or even with Da'am, which has a joint Arab-Jewish slate of candidates? Who would risk the prospect of campaign billboards jointly featuring Meretz's Zahava Gal-On and Balad's Hanin Zuabi?

And if that's the situation in Meretz, it is all the more true in the Labor Party or Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah, both of which are prepared to commit themselves to improving the situation of Israeli Arabs, but only from a distance. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, too, which serves as a symbol of Sephardi social solidarity, a standard-bearer against ethnic injustice, would screech to a halt before extending some compassion to Israel's Arabs. The party is plenty interested in their votes and gets a few nods from Arab communities, but on the condition that the Arabs provide their support individually. A coalition with Arab parties is completely out of the question. Shas really does fight discrimination, but it's not suicidal.

In any event, the Jewish party boycott of the Arab parties leaves the Arab factions politically impotent. Without a Jewish partnership and without recognition of their legitimacy, their prospects for improving the situation of Israeli Arabs and of addressing economic and social injustice, or even ruling on the content of Israeli Arab textbooks, remain negligible.

If Arab parties want to be thrown any kind of bone, they face a paradox. They must hitch a ride with the Jewish parties on the left and center to have any sort of impact, to influence the state budget in any way or stir up any kind of fuss in the Knesset. And in any event, we're dealing here with an alliance between two pitiful camps, because even the Jewish parties that aren't themselves right-wing have been forced, in turn, to collect whatever alms they could from the right-wing political steamroller as it pressed on, full steam ahead.

The Arab parties can't really tout any prospect of social change among their voters, so they are left to embrace the cause of the Palestinians in the territories. Thus, they further marginalize themselves in three respects. The Jewish parties won't go anywhere near them; a major chunk of the Israeli Arab populace doesn't view them as truly representative; and the right-wing Jewish parties can paint them as national traitors, making it ever so easy to leap toward sullying the image of all Israeli Arabs.

From the standpoint of both Jewish and Arab society, the result is that the Arab parties become non-existent in some respects, lacking any kind of influence on social issues. And from the standpoint of the Jewish parties on the left, the presence of the Arab parties is like some kind of storehouse of poisonous Knesset seats too dangerous to utilize. It is indeed a unique type of left wing that must exclude and hide some of its clientele if it wishes to help them. To be left-wing in these parts, it seems, one must behave like the right wing.

Members of the Knesset Ahmed Tibi, left, Hanna Swaid, middle, and Jamal Zahalka, right during a hearing, Jerusalem, July 20, 2011.Credit: Emil Salman

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