The partnership between the United Arab List and Jewish parties in the current government will have far-reaching implications, for better or for worse, for the future of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel as well as the center-left’s ability to be in power. The continued success of this partnership is crucial for a better future, though it also has destructive potential. This is the challenge facing the leadership of the center-left.
The positive impact of having the UAL in the coalition is clear: With their entry into the government, the delegitimization of Arab political power has collapsed, and both the political system and the public are growing accustomed to seeing Arab citizens and their representatives in power. But legitimizing cooperation is not enough. If this partnership fails – whether due to a political dispute or because the government is unable to fulfill its promises to Arab voters – it could have resoundingly negative consequences.
For the Jewish public, the failed attempt to cooperate with sympathetic Arab political forces could revive the “no partner for peace” argument, but this time, for internal Israeli politics – with the same disastrous effects as it has in the Israeli-Palestinian context. For the Arab public, if there are no real achievements in the civil arena after its representatives agreed to forgo almost all of their national demands – such as amending the nation-state law or repealing the disgraceful citizenship law – it will give rise to deep despair and opposition to partnering with Jewish parties. This is why the right and the opposition want to see the partnership fail, and why every effort should be made to promote its success in the current government, despite all the government’s shortcomings.
The government is taking important and urgent steps in relation to the Arab Israeli community; chiefly, addressing high crime rates, reducing socioeconomic gaps and legalizing unrecognized villages. The UAL will naturally tout these achievements to boost its standing in Arab society, and divide Arab political power by weakening the Joint List. To reach these goals, the UAL ends up echoing the right’s false claims that the Joint List does not act on behalf of Arab citizens. The UAL could earn a major boost in the next election, and weaken the Joint List to the point that it could fail to cross the electoral threshold. The UAL has already shown that it is willing to partner with the most racist forces in Israel. It could potentially join a right-wing coalition, placing most or all of Arab Israelis’ political power at the service of a far-right government for many years.
This terrifying scenario should keep leaders of the center-left up at night, motivating them to act urgently to build a bridge between their camp and the Joint List – in addition to the UAL, not in place of it. The center-left should wield its governmental power over the key ministries it holds. In these areas, they should advance bills with the support of Joint List MKs that advance Arab society through cooperation and consultation with its leaders; tours in the field should include members of the Joint List, and they should push public and political initiatives together.
Center-left leaders should maintain a continuous, deep dialogue with the Joint List, both publicly and privately, based on a philosophy of civic equality and a shared ethical foundation that extends beyond the common denominator between the center-left and the UAL. This dialogue must include a straightforward examination of Arab Israelis’ legitimate national needs and make every effort to provide for them.
The bridge-building work will be difficult. Political partnership between Zionist parties and parties that emphasize the Palestinian identity of Arab citizens and their national demands will include conflicts of identity and ideological disagreements. But anyone who believes in democracy and equality for all citizens must strive without delay for full legitimacy of the entire Arab political spectrum. By the next election, it could be too late.
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The center-left made history when it courageously propelled a deep and expedient process of legitimization for Arab Israeli political power. Now, an equally brave but far more complicated move is necessary. The center-left must both strengthen its partnership with the UAL within the government, while giving voice and power to its political rival, the Joint List.
A recent study conducted by the aChord Center of Hebrew University of Jerusalem on behalf of Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, an organization that promotes Jewish-Arab political partnership, found that a large majority of center-left voters (64 percent) support political partnership with all the Arab parties, including having them as part of the coalition. It also found that most Arab Israelis, including a majority of Joint List Voters (56 percent), support political partnership with the center-left and having Arab parties join the coalition. These figures indicate that the center-left leadership will find public support as it works to build alliances with all of the Arab political forces.
Such a move is both possible and vital. After many years of far-right leadership, the center and left have succeeded in becoming a significant and influential part of the government once more. This was only possible due to the political partnership with the UAL. The only way for the center-left to return to leading the government is to expand this political partnership to include all the representatives of the Arab public.
In order to establish a just society in Israel, eliminate the disgraceful stain of institutionalized discrimination against Arab Israelis, prevent the right from leading the country to oblivion, and start the process of ending Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the territories, we must establish a political partnership that encompasses the Jewish center-left and all Arab citizens. Then, a government must be formed that can pursue these objectives. We must roll up our sleeves and start the hard work of building this partnership. The sooner the better. In the wake of MK Idit Silman’s sudden resignation, and the government’s loss of a majority in the Knesset, this partnership is all the more relevant and crucial for the coalition’s continued survival.
Ron Gerlitz is the CEO of aChord – Social Psychology for Social Change.