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Money Alone Can't Buy Arab Participation – or Trust – in Israeli Politics

Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili
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United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas in the Knesset, in June.
United Arab List chair Mansour Abbas in the Knesset, in June.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Ron Cahlili
Ron Cahlili

Nasser, 24, was born and raised in Jaffa, not far from the flea market. Today he lives with his parents on the border between Jaffa and Bat Yam. Gentrification has eliminated his prospects for surviving in Jaffa, which in 1948 was home to about 120,000 Palestinians. Today there are barely 15,000.

Nasser defines himself as an Israeli. The dream of a Palestinian state is not his dream. He rhetorically asks: “What should I be longing for, an idea that has been cut short, for a utopia that hasn’t come to fruition? I look around me,” he says, “and I see what the Arab countries have established, and such models don’t appeal to me. I’m part of Israeli society and I am demanding equality. Not two states but rather being able to freely enter a club or a university – and not undergoing the regular humiliation ritual at Ben-Gurion Airport security.”

Israel's political crisis is far from over – and getting worse

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Thirty-four-year-old Sa’id was born and raised in the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm. A lawyer, he is single and lives with his parents in a highly adorned private home on top of a hill, where their three luxury cars are also parked.

“The first time that I heard about the Nakba,” he recounted, “was when I was 13. The Nakba [The Arab word for catastrophe referring to the destruction of Palestinian society and homeland in 1948] is a formative experience for my grandfather and grandmother, may Allah have mercy on them. Not for me and not even for my parents, who were born a few years after it. You’re sure that for all the Arabs, it’s Palestine, Palestine,” he quips, “but there are a lot of people like me.

“Call us the new Arab Israeli middle class. More educated, more well-to-do, more connected. The dream of a Palestinian state,” he said in conclusion, “is not our dream. We’re Israeli.”

Dr. Arwah Switat, the public representative on the Haifa municipal historic preservation committee, has an interesting explanation for this. Palestinian Israelis, particularly young ones, have been trained to hide their national inclinations and to emphasize what is good and what they have in common with the Jewish society that controls the country, he said.

Palestinian Israelis know what awaits them if they’re vocal about Palestine and what would happen to the Arab capitalist who jabbers in polished English about culture, high-tech and universalism. We saw this clearly in the riots that broke out in the mixed cities. In the moment of truth, they’re more Palestinian than Israeli.

For Prof. Sammy Smooha, who has been researching Jewish-Arab relations since the mid-1970s, there’s a fascinating explanation. Israeli Arabs, he says, undergo two simultaneous, seemingly contradictory processes.

On one hand, they undergo “Israelization” – more Hebrew, more education, more social media, more money and a greater identification with the Jewish sovereign. But they also undergo “Palestinization” – greater recognition of historical and contemporary injustice, greater emphasis on national identity and sometimes even radicalism. We’re used to thinking in dichotomies – that it’s either one way or another – but life’s more complicated, says Smooha.

The major split among Israel’s Arab parties in 2019 is therefore an authentic reflection of reality. The mainly Arab Joint List, which scored major electoral successes in 2015, split up and one of the parties that made up the slate, the United Arab List, emerged with a new political idea that in many respects is expressed by Nasser, Sa’id and apparently a significant group of other Palestinian Israelis. The agenda of Joint List leader Ayman Odeh is not theirs.

It’s understood that the media and Jewish public opinion have categorized them as “good” or pragmatic Arabs, the kind that would trample the Palestinian national dream in exchange for crumbs of government funding and personal benefit. But in practice, as we have seen in recent weeks, it’s more complicated. It turns out that the Palestinian dream isn’t going anywhere.

It also explains the forgiving attitude of UAL leader Mansour Abbas toward his party colleague MK Mazen Ghanayim, who refused to vote to renew Israeli regulations in the West Bank, which manage the privileges given to Jewish settlers while breaking up and abusing the Palestinians. Suddenly Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman understand that money isn’t everything.

According to the neoliberal worldview of the late Shimon Peres, economic peace through projects such as a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea would eliminate ideological differences and national aspirations. In 2015, the cabinet of his ideological successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, passed Resolution 922, which for the first time provided the Arab public in Israel massive government funding, 15 billion shekels ($4.4 billion). That view turns out now to be another heavy-handed, blind and arrogant trick. Instead of narrowing disparities, it tries to obscure them and eliminate national dreams.

Some opinion polls in recent months indicated that the UAL would be wiped off the political map, but the polls aren’t showing a significant boost for the Joint List either. It’s reasonable to assume that what happened with Mizrahi Jews – a third of whom didn’t bother to vote in the recent rounds of elections – is also happening to Arab Israeli citizens. It involves a total loss of trust in the political system and in its ability to better the situation.

If that’s the case, the experiment hasn’t failed. It just requires substance – political, national and moral. The thought that everything is money is not just political folly; it’s also a strategy that has never proved itself.

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