Israel’s democracy, the “only” democracy in the Middle East (™), has been under attack from different directions. Until recently, the threat to Israeli democracy took the form of “death by a thousand little cuts.” Today it is being attacked by huge amputations of rights and privileges for over 20% of its lawful citizens. But in a profound change, these citizens have found a forceful path of democratic resistance.
As our readers are well aware, an unprecedented second election was forced upon the Israeli public after a political stalemate prevented the formation of a government five months earlier. In many respects, the result in September looked like the outcome in April. But as much as it looked the same it was in fact very different.
Elections back in April were called by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to protect himself from three separate indictments that he will finally face after 12 years of investigations into various crimes. Bibi was hoping an election victory would permit him to pass a law that would shield a sitting Prime Minister from indictment. But Bibi failed to form a coalition after those elections. In a bid to prevent any other party to succeed in forming one, he called for new elections. Rerun, reset, control-alt-delete. At the time of this writing it is becoming more and more clear that Bibi will again fail to create a coalition that can serve as a protective cloak around him. That’s the same part — the different part starts here:
The Israeli Arab voters in September had a much larger turnout than back in April. There were multiple reasons for the poor showing in April. A united front of 4 Arab-community based parties which had merged into a single electoral list in 2015 split up again for the April election, dampening enthusiasm among Arab voters who had little patience for inter-party squabbles. But there was also real anti-Arab voter suppression tactics. In 2015, near the end of a tight campaign, Netanyahu urged supporters to vote for him because “the Arabs are voting in droves.” This threat to the Arab community was not forgotten. To build on it and to further intimidate and suppress Arab voter turnout last April, Netanyahu dispatched Likud operatives with cameras to tape voters from Arab villages as they voted. These tactics were bolder than ever before and succeeded in keeping Arab citizens of Israel away from the polls.
What worked in April failed in September. The Arab community was motivated by the renewed unity among the four Arab parties, which recreated a single Joint List for the September vote. This time, instead of fearing the racist calls by Israel’s right-wing political establishment they were undaunted.
Repeatedly during the campaign, Netanyahu had used anti-Arab incitement to frighten Jewish voters and energize a racist segment of the electorate. This summer, desperate to win reelection in a close campaign and facing likely indictment for corruption if he failed, Netanyahu’s incitement reached new heights. His ads proclaimed that anything other than his successful return to power would result in “a weak leftist secular government that relies on the Arabs who want to kill us all — men, women and children — and enable a nuclear Iran that will destroy us all.”
On the eve of the elections, the Likud filed an injunction with the court to prevent a non-profit civic group from transporting Bedouin citizens to the polls. Since the nearest polling stations are miles from the multiple unrecognized villages where many Bedouin live, the court had almost guaranteed that these Israelis wouldn’t be able to cast their ballot. To their credit, upon hearing this news, individual Israeli volunteers stepped in to offer transportation help.
The TV and print ads that clearly promoted anti-Arab hatred, fear, and discrimination only energized Arab citizens to go to the polls. In September, the combined Arab Joint List received 133,000 more votes than for its separate constituents last April. The total vote for the Joint List gave them 13 legislators, making them the third largest party to sit in the newly elected 22nd Knesset. Indeed, if the two largest parties, Likud and the Blue White slate, were to form a unity government, it is likely the Joint List, as the next largest party, would become the leader of the Opposition, a special parliamentary status with unique rights.
But the explicitly anti-Arab tricks that Netanyahu and his allies pulled during the campaign and election had an earlier and more dangerous precedent. Netanyahu actively sponsored and promoted an anti-democratic change to Israel’s Basic Law which was enacted in July of 2018.
Israel has no constitution. Basic Laws are used to give legal expression to general guiding concepts and they have a special legal status. Some of the Basic Laws, particularly the law on Human Dignity and Liberty place the values of equality of rights of all citizens, as expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, into the legal code of Israel. Israeli Courts have used such Basic Laws as the foundation for the principal of judicial review. This has upset right-wing Israeli governments which have sought ways to curb judicial power and limit one of the few checks and balances of Israeli parliamentary democracy.
The Nation-State Law declares that Israel’s status as a Jewish State bestows a special status for Jewish citizens. The language of the Law is intentionally ambiguous but what is very clear is Netanyahu’s interpretations of it. All people are equal but some people are more equal than others. When the Nation State Law passed, Netanyahu wrote on Instagram: “Israel is not a state of all its citizens… According to the basic nationality law we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and only it.” According to this interpretation, the new Nation State law could be used to promote discrimination against Israeli non-Jews and curb the power of judicial review to prevent it.
In the end the scaremongering and hate did not drive up supporters for Bibi or a right wing coalition; it did lead to a dramatic increase among Arab voters. The outcome has virtually guaranteed that Netanyahu will fail to form a government and thereby avoid indictment for corruption. That was a gamble that Bibi was ready to make and he lost.
Let us take a moment to examine what the parties of the Joint List and what they represent. The Arab citizenry of Israel is no more a monolith than the Jewish electorate. The four parties are Balad, the United Arab List, Ta’al, and Hadash. Each of the parties have a different vision for the future of Arab citizens of Israel.
- Balad rejects the concept of Israel as a Jewish State, seeking to transform it into an explicitly bi-national State. Embedded in the ideology is an Arab nationalism seeking equal footing with Jewish nationalism in Israel.
- The United Arab List is also an Arab nationalist party; it is Islamist oriented and its main base of support is among Negev Bedouin who have been subject to intense discrimination.
- Ta’al is a party closely associated with its founder, Ahmed Tibi. It is a breakaway faction from Balad and largely shares Balad’s ideology but is dominated by the idiosyncrasies of its founder.
- The fourth party, Hadash means New but is also an acronym that stands for The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality. It is an explicitly non-Zionist left-wing, Arab and Jewish, coalition with historical ties to the Communist Party of Israel. Hadash supports a socialist economy, worker rights, Arab-Jewish cooperation, civil rights, and equality of rights for all Israeli citizens. It has a secular orientation. Its current leader, Aymen Odeh, is the driving force behind the Joint List and is its senior-most figure.
So the Joint List is an unwieldly group of Islamists, Christians, Muslims, Druze, secularists, feminists, socialists, Arab nationalists, and even some Jews. What has bound them together are the common problems of the Arab communities and the explicit hostility of the governing right-wing Israeli political establishment.
It should be noted that Arabs and Druze appear on other party lists as well. Meretz, Labor and Likud have included Arabs on their respective electoral lists or sponsored aligned Arab lists. Since coming to power, the Likud maintained long-standing ties to Druze communities and typically elected Druze on its list. These ties were strained by Netanyahu’s sponsorship and active promotion of the Nation State Law. Beyond the 12 Arabs and Druze elected on the Joint List (the 13th was a Jew sponsored by Hadash), there were two other Druze elected to the 22nd Knesset, one on the Blue and White list and one from Lieberman’s Beiteinu party.
So what happened in September’s election that didn’t happen in April? After all, both elections seem to have had the same deadlocked result. The Israel Democracy Institute has studied voter participation in the two elections. The Institute estimates that the Arab/Druze votes for the established Zionist parties fell from 28.4% in April to 17.6% in September. That was a loss of about 13,000 votes. Votes that moved to the Joint Arab List. A huge additional spike of Arab voters who had stayed home in April joined those 13,000 votes. The electorate was making a statement. It was fed up with the racist incitement and discrimination. It wanted a place at the table.
So eager were they to be full partners in Israel’s democracy that for the first time, Ayman Odeh the head of the Arab Joint List announced that under certain conditions, they would be ready to join a Center-Left coalition to form a government and oust Netanyahu. This has never happened. In the entire history of the modern State of Israel. No Arab party (let alone one that is the third largest in the government) has agreed to join a coalition with the Zionist parties and to be active partners in the rule of Israel. As of this writing no coalition has been formed but 10 out of the 13 Arab Joint List representatives have supported Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party recommending to Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel, that Gantz be given a chance to form the government.
There are real problems in Israel’s non-Jewish communities. Arab towns have inferior school funding and infrastructure development. Housing permits have been used as instruments of control and have been given grudgingly, if at all, within non-Jewish communities, creating a significant housing shortage in Arab towns. Homes built without permits are subject to demolition which is periodically enforced. Unrecognized Bedouin villages exist without running water or electricity. Lately, a problem of organized crime and violence has developed due to under-policing. Netanyahu’s hateful incitements were the bitter icing on this very stale cake.
The irony of Netanyahu’s campaign of hate is that this time, Israel’s Arab citizens really did vote “in droves” with enough effect to block him. With a judicial hearing scheduled for this month, a corruption indictment seems certain. Netanyahu may be forced from power.
In this fractured political condition and under Odeh’s skillful handling, the Joint List is gaining a new respect for the Arab polity. It is too soon to say whether this will result in any real change in policy or political acceptance. It is likely, however, to result in a change in rhetoric and this is not to be taken lightly. There is an urgent need for a real two-way dialogue between Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish citizens. It appears that the unintended consequence of whittling away at Israel’s democracy has in effect strengthened its weakest populations and inspired them to claim rights that are theirs as well.
Beyond this, politicians are aware that at 20 percent of Israel’s population, the potential Arab vote is even larger. If the ideas of fairness, respect, and equality before the law are not enough to motivate the Israeli political establishment to change conditions, perhaps simple political arithmetic will.