The Joint Arab List: Careful Who You Vote For

The electoral list offers hope for improving Arab-Jewish ties. But let's not fool ourselves about some of the constituents' views.

Israel Shrenzel
Joint List
Joint List candidates before the last Knesset election. Credit: Rami Shlush
Israel Shrenzel

The poll published in Haaretz last week revealing that a majority of the Israeli-Arab public is in favor of taking part in the next government is good news for those who advocate equality and coexistence, and view relations between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority as a major issue on the country’s agenda.

In the meantime, the official position of the Joint List – the united slate of the Arab parties – is that it is opposed to being part of any coalition government, and in any case such a development presently looks like an unrealistic scenario. Still, the very fact that the ticket was put together, even if under duress, offers hope for a renewed positive momentum in Jewish-Arab relations. With large parts of the Arab world fragmenting along religious and ethnic fault lines and amid brutal violence, the very ability to unite is a positive development.

The leaders of the Joint List wisely placed Ayman Odeh, from Hadash – a moderate in both his outlook and his public statements – at the head of the ticket, and it’s to be hoped that the principles of Hadash will dominate the united party’s path after the election, too.

Even those who did not vote for Hadash in the past, and don’t intend to cast their ballot for the Joint List (such as the author of this article), would do well to appreciate Hadash’s tenacity – since the 1940s, in its communist incarnation – in supporting the “two states for two nations” solution, the consistent integration of Jews into its slate (though this has been too much reduced in the recent elections), and its MKs’ extensive social and legislative activity.

People who derided Avraham Burg for joining Hadash should therefore reconsider the matter. True, it’s a drastic move by a former Jewish Agency chairman, but its internal logic is sound.

In a recent op-ed (in Haaretz Hebrew Edition), Tal Niv took note of a tendency among “the nub of the intelligentsia of the Jewish left” to vote for the Joint List as a form of protest in the face of multiple manifestations of racism and discrimination against the Arab minority. I don’t know whether this is really a significant phenomenon, but those who are considering the idea should be aware of what in my view is a problematic ideological stance held by other elements of this ticket – notably, Balad.

MK Haneen Zoabi and her provocative behavior aside, one should know the basic positions of Balad: uncompromising Arab nationalism, a goal of radically transforming the country’s Jewish-Zionist character, and reservations, to put it mildly, about joint Arab-Jewish activity. Also disturbing is the ongoing behind-the-scenes influence from abroad of Azmi Bishara, a founder and former leader and MK from Balad, and a suspected accomplice to terrorism, even if he was not convicted.

A vote for the Islamic Movement, which is also part of the Joint List, should also be carefully considered. True, this is the movement’s southern branch, which is far more moderate than the northern branch headed by Sheik Ra’ad Salah, who boycotts the elections on principle – in fact, a disagreement over the legitimacy of taking part in elections was one of the causes of the movement’s split, in 1996.

Still, the movement’s underlying ideological identification with the Muslim Brotherhood, including sympathy for Hamas (which views itself as the Palestinian arm of the Brotherhood), and its support for conservative social values are quite clear. Burg was right again when he objected to Hadash’s linkup with its partners, but it’s a done deed.

If the Joint List continues to remains intact after the election as well – an important condition for promoting genuine change – and if the spirit of Hadash will dominate the slate, we can hope that large sections of the Jewish public and its representatives will extend a hand and be ready to battle attitudes of exclusion and discrimination.

It’s worth recalling that this was once the view held by important segments of Likud, though this approach is now virtually nonexistent in that party. Still, one of the faithful proponents of this viewpoint now occupies the President’s Residence, and Reuven Rivlin’s actions in the short time he has been in office offer hope that he will throw his weight behind Jewish-Arab rapprochement. Significant success in this will strengthen Israel’s democratic – and, no less, its Jewish – image.

A fair and equal-rights approach to the Other is a salient Jewish principle, whereas those who advocate “Umm al-Fahm for Palestine” or deny the right of Arab MKs to participate in decisions on certain issues are, I believe, evincing a blatantly non-Jewish approach.

I will conclude with an episode from my past. In 1999, while I was working for the Shin Bet security service, I presented to a government forum a positive picture of Jewish-Arab relations and noted the absence – with the exception of totally negligible fringes – of involvement by the Arab public in abetting terrorism. (The Shin Bet traditionally supports greater civil integration, as an important tool for preventing extremism that is liable to lead to terrorism.)

After I spoke, a representative of another body accused me bluntly of painting a “Swiss” picture, and also leaked the remarks to the media. The unrest that followed, in October 2000, seemingly proved his point; but in a wider perspective, Arab-Jewish relations demonstrated impressive survivability despite extremists on both sides.

From the viewpoint of 2015, and in light of the poll mentioned earlier, we can look ahead with optimism, though it must be accompanied by meaningful activity by the Jewish majority and its representatives.

Israel Shrenzel, a former Shin Bet department head, teaches in Tel Aviv University’s department of Arabic and Islamic studies.

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