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For Israel’s sake, Arab citizens must vote in droves

The Arab parties will balance the Knesset, and help block another self-serving government that's propped up by religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists
An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother's ballot at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli/File)
An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother's ballot at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm on March 17, 2015. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli/File)

For Israel to stand a chance of crafting a vision of a better, more stable and more peaceful future in the south of the country — and indeed a chance of advancing its strategic interests more generally — it will need a strong, effective government. That is true for the sake of breaking the endless cycle of terror and responses to it in Gaza. But it is also true in terms of addressing the Iranian threat and that of Hezbollah. And if Israel’s divided society is to be healed and its cohesion and resilience resurrected by managing Israel’s significant economic, infrastructural, and educational imbalances. For the larger picture, Israel needs a new means of seeking a resolution with the Palestinians.

To be clear: strong government is not the same as government by a “strong-man.” Indeed, 12 years of a “strong-man’s” rule brought Israel no closer to resolving its most pressing needs. Tough talk alienated allies – and did not prevent the Iranian nuclear deal (worse, its eventual collapse brought Iran closer to a bomb, not further away). Neglecting the Palestinian issue did not “manage the conflict,” but mutated it, making it even harder to solve. And within Israel, we saw the catastrophic impact of a collection of ministers motivated above all by their own survival playing fast and loose with Israel’s social divisions and as a result empowering the most violent and fanatical elements. The mob violence that blighted Israel’s mixed cities during the 2021 war in Gaza was a stark warning that unchecked, Israel’s internal divisions pose the existential threat.

That was the situation the Lapid-Bennett coalition inherited. The extent to which the leaders of this coalition set aside their differences to attempt to govern in the national interest was inspirational. And to their credit, and to that of Mansour Abbas, this coalition broke a longstanding and toxic taboo that had prevented an Arab party from sitting in government.

Moreover, in light of last week’s ceasefire, this government deserves credit for taking proactive measures to weaken Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which helps prevent attacks on Israeli citizens, and for showing restraint, once those limited objectives were achieved.

Indeed, this government has undertaken constructive action, in just over a year in office, to achieve Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s vision of a better future, as he described it last week: “the path of…innovation and economy, or regional development and joint projects…” Perhaps the additional work permits that allowed more Gazans to enter Israel boosted Gaza’s economy, giving them more to lose, and offering Hamas a reason to avoid entering the conflict.

More will need to be done, however, if the pattern of tactical responses to terror from Gaza is ever to give way to a longer term, strategic solution. There are no easy answers, of course. Dealing with a territory ruled by terrorist organizations avowedly committed to Israel’s destruction is always going to be fraught and high risk, whatever steps Israel takes.

And here we are again, with another election around the corner. Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system does not offer much hope for a strong, stable and enduring government capable of addressing Israel’s challenges in a strategic way. For the parties of the left, center, and center-right, however, the priority must be averting a return to directionless government led by the self-serving, and propped up by religious fundamentalists and ultra-nationalist pyromaniacs.

But right now that scenario can only be prevented if Israel’s Arab population is motivated to vote. “The Arabs are voting in droves,” Netanyahu famously warned his supporters in 2015. For a viable government capable of advancing Israel’s interests to be possible, we had better hope that is the case this time round.

Alarmingly, however, recent polling predicts voter turnout among Arab Israelis to be as low as 40 percent. Over the next three months, parties who aspire to forming a coalition without Ben Gvir, Smotrich, coercive Haredim or a leader of yesterday will need to think about the environment that must prevail to facilitate a higher proportion of Arab Israelis exercising their democratic rights at the ballot box. If the left, center, and center-right Jewish parties think only about their own fight for Jewish votes, the opposition awaits.

What can those parties offer to entice Arab voters to the polls, ensure that Arab parties fulfill their potential and help return a Knesset that offers a balanced reflection of Israel’s diverse population?

The case for what this outgoing government achieved, such as the nearly $9 billion investment in Arab towns, needs to be made. Israel’s Arab citizens must believe that they are key stakeholders in the future of the Jewish and democratic state. Would it be too much, for instance, for parties to advocate making Eid and Christmas public holidays as a gesture of respect to Israel’s Muslim and Christian minorities? Or making the teaching of both Arabic and Hebrew compulsory in all Israeli schools?

The taboo has been broken. We have glimpsed a different reality of an Arab party in an Israeli government. Now the Arab population needs to be persuaded of and motivated by the benefits of remaining in one, for their sake and for Israel’s.

About the Author
Mick Davis is a former chief executive of the Conservative Party, a former chairman of the UK Jewish Leadership Council and UJIA, and an international businessman.
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