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What's Really Behind the Israeli Arab Political Revolution

David Rosenberg
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Flanked by other members of the United Arab List, Chairman Mansour Abbas speaks at the President's Residence, this week.
Flanked by other members of the United Arab List, Chairman Mansour Abbas speaks at the President's Residence, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
David Rosenberg

For the second time in a year, the political moment of Israel’s Arabs came and went. The first time was in March 2020, when the Joint List amassed 15 Knesset seats and suddenly became a player in Israel’s coalition politics. The second time was last month, when Mansour Abbas said his United Arab List party might even enter a government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both moments have passed, leaving the Arab parties in the opposition for now, but the forces that have created this political revolution remain. The fateful decision by many Arab leaders to abandon their old stance as parties of protest in favor of pragmatism have deep roots in the changes underway in Arab society. They are not a fleeting phenomenon, and Jewish Israelis are going to have to come around to the new reality.

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When Israeli Jews – including those with the best of intentions – talk about the Arab minority, it’s almost always framed in negative terms. The Arab poverty rate in 2018, approaching 50%, was more than three times that of Israeli Jews. Arab towns are overwhelmingly in the lowest socioeconomic brackets. Crime rates have soared – in 2019, Arab citizens accounted for 61% of all criminal arrests, nearly three times their share of the population, and a sharp rise from 54% in 2015. A growing number of young Arab males who are neither working nor in school, which goes a long way toward explaining surging crime.

Unexpectedly, under Netanyahu’s leadership, the government has begun to address these persistent gaps between state resources allotted to Arab communities and to the rest of Israel, approving a five-year plan for social and employment development. But this is a slow progression, in part because the Arab municipalities that are supposed to implement these measures don’t have the administrative capabilities to effectively spend the budgets to which they now have access.

These are all serious problems, but they belie a much more important demographic trend: a growing Israeli Arab middle class. Although it is still much smaller than the Jewish middle class, the Bank of Israel estimates that 22.6% of Arab Israelis had incomes between 75% and 125% of median disposable income per capita nationwide in the years 2016-2018, up from 15.9% in 2007-2009. Another 6% belong to the upper-middle class (125%-200% of the median), up from 5.4% in the previous period.

United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas arrives at the President's Residence, this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

This comes hand-in-hand with increased numbers of Arabs pursuing a college education. In the last 12 years, the share of Arab students enrolled at Israeli colleges and universities has nearly doubled to 17.2%. More of them than ever (a 104% increase from 2012 to 2018) are getting degrees in disciplines related to high-tech, which in today’s Israel is where the money and status is. Arab Israeli representation in the tech workforce has also doubled – alas, to just 2.1% of the total.

One reason for the growth of the middle class is that Israeli Arab birth rates are falling, which reflects the fact that more Arab women are accessing higher education and holding jobs. But deeper down, it reflects an attitudinal change – a desire for the same material comforts and opportunities that bourgeois life offers.

The transition has been in the making for some time, and probably has a lot to do with simple economics. Israel has grown wealthy – so wealthy that even citizens who face discrimination have better opportunities than they could expect in nearly any Arab country, apart from a handful of places in the Gulf. The dashed hopes of the Arab Spring likely underscored the advantages of life in Israel.

But what does this middle class want? Abbas said it himself shortly after last month’s election: “I, Mansour Abbas, a member of the Islamic Movement, an Arab and a proud Muslim, extend my hand … to create an opportunity for a shared life, in the holy and blessed land for the followers of the three religions and both peoples.” What is equally important is what he didn’t say – not a word about Palestine or two states, the Nation-State Law or cultural autonomy, the favored topics of Israeli Arab politicians.

Abbas is focused on the Israeli Arab equivalent of pothole politics, i.e., delivering bread-and-butter achievements to his constituents who want better schools, better infrastructure, better policing and all the other things government can bring. To do that, a recent poll found that nearly three-quarters of Israeli Arabs support the idea of an Arab political party joining a coalition and sitting in the cabinet. Getting a place in the government means getting your interests looked after.

Israeli Jews should welcome the change, but as the political acrobatics over any coalition including Arab parties have shown, it’s not going to be easy.

It was no shock that Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich mouthed off this week about how the only Arabs welcome in Israel are Arabs who are loyal to the idea of the Jewish state, with the underlying message that there are few, and probably none, of these. But this opposition is, unfortunately, not confined to the lunatic right. The same poll that showed large numbers of Israeli Arabs supporting an Arab party entering the coalition found that a majority, 53%, of Jews opposed the idea.

So, now, we have to ask, just what do the Jews want? Israeli Arabs have extended their hand. Are we going to turn them away?

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