Most Israelis seemed nonchalant about the recent Knesset election, held last March. The outcome was totally expected. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected and the overall political pendulum moved even further to the right. But one dynamic produced some shock and awe in the Israeli political system: For the first time ever, a political alliance of four Palestinian-dominated parties in Israel – Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al – joined forces in a Joint Arab List and became the third-largest faction in the 20th Knesset.
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Just as the Israeli political right-wing thought it had squeezed Israel’s Palestinian citizens out of the national governance equation by raising the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, these minority Palestinian parties joined forces. The Joint Arab List is not a strategic political platform (not yet, at least), but political survival dictated electoral unity, since several of these parties did not reach 3.25 percent in the previous Knesset election.
The significance of this historic political initiative by Palestinian citizens of Israel far exceeds the Joint Arab List’s 13 Knesset seats. The move brought greater focus to a potent strategic asset of the Palestinian struggle on both sides of the nonexistent Green Line; it highlighted, yet again, a still under-utilized source of Palestinian political agency.
A country for all its citizens
The first time Palestinian citizens of Israel displayed this mode of proactive political agency to such an impressive degree was back in 2006-2007 when the Palestinian community in Israel produced “future vision” documents, such as “The Haifa Declaration,” published by Mada al-Carmel – Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa, and “The Democratic Constitution,” published by Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, describing how Israel can and must change to be a country for all its citizens, Jews and Arabs alike.
The collective challenge these documents posed to the particularistic Jewish foundation of Israel was so shocking that mainstream Israeli society, after an initial frenzy of outrage, opted mostly to ignore it altogether.
All of this happened inside Israel proper, not in the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
With sound visions for a better future in place and an electoral victory in Israel, Palestinians living under Israel’s nearly five-decade-old military rule in the territories are now poised to make a game-changing strategic shift that would render Israel’s regime of force as naked as the proverbial emperor with no clothes.
Instead of frantically trying to revive the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to represent all Palestinians – those under occupation, citizens of Israel, refugees and those in the diaspora – Palestinians can simply look west, to the Palestinian political parties inside Israel and already represented in the Knesset.
In a way, this would actually be a wholly unexceptional act, since Israel, as the sole sovereign power between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, governs all three constituencies: Israelis and Palestinians in Israel, as well as Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
As the two-state solution recedes toward historical footnote status, Palestinians have been left with a defunct national liberation movement (the PLO), an aging leadership fraught with disunity, and two long-term strategies that have failed utterly: armed struggle and bilateral negotiations.
Meanwhile, the success of Israel in creating facts on the ground – notably the ever-growing Jewish-only settlement enterprise, which buried the two-state solution – does not mean that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are going to vanish into thin air. Nor does it mean Palestinians will resign themselves to living under military occupation or as refugees forever. Instead, they can make common cause with their brethren in Israel through the Palestinian-Arab political parties in Israel. These are led by accomplished women and men who operate expertly inside the Israeli political system, speak Hebrew, are veterans of Israeli political culture, and are clear on their right to their national and political identity.
When Joint Arab List leader MK Ayman Odeh gave his inaugural speech in the Knesset after his alliance’s victory, he reiterated his electoral platform based on universal human and civil rights, and for equality for all citizens of Israel. In fluent Hebrew, he noted:
“Mr. Speaker, distinguished Knesset, the year is 2025, the 10-year plan to combat racism and inequality has borne fruit. Hundreds of thousands of Arab employees have been integrated into the private sector, the high-tech economy and the public service.
“The social gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens have been reduced remarkably and the economy has been prosperous for the benefit of all residents.
“Jews are learning Arabic, Arabs are diligently honing their Hebrew skills. Jewish and Arab students are being introduced to the great thinkers and philosophers of both peoples.”
Buying into the vision
Neither Odeh, nor his Joint Arab List, have spoken out concerning the potential application of this approach to all Palestinians, including those across the Green Line. But Palestinians under occupation or living as refugees may surprise him and buy into his vision without even asking his permission.
As Lisa Goldman wrote in +972 Magazine last May, “Implicitly, [Odeh] is describing the emergence of the assertive and self-confident third generation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The first generation lived under military rule [inside Israel from 1948-1966]; the second was afraid and kept its head down; and the third is ready to take its place, unapologetically, as equals in Israeli society.”
The fourth generation, I suspect, will reawaken the greater Palestinian collective by reuniting the Palestinians under Israeli rule and those living elsewhere – mobilizing them to realize the full spectrum of rights to which all are entitled equally, by demanding their free exercise from the state that withholds it. This, indeed, may already have become both more important and more practical than realizing a state of their own.
If Palestinians redefine their self-determination away from statehood and toward civil rights, the game is over – even if the struggle for full civil rights lasts another 50 years. One day, Jewish Israelis and Jews around the world could find themselves gazing at the erstwhile “Jewish State” and admiring (in spite of themselves) Israel’s new, grand, pluralistic incarnation, while perhaps wondering nostalgically why they failed to encourage the emergence of an independent state of Palestine when they had the chance.
The writer serves as a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, and is chairman of Americans for a Vibrant Palestinian Economy. He blogs at ePalestine.com.