The past year has not been promising for those hoping for peace in Israel. Protests at the border in Gaza caused some Israelis to fear a violent incursion into their country – and led to the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians. The “Jewish Nation-State Law” was passed, demoting Arabic as an official language of Israel and enshrining “Jewish nationalist aspects of Israeli governance at the expense of the democratic value of equality among all citizens.” A botched Israeli intelligence mission in Gaza led to exchanges of rockets and air strikes. The national governing coalition disbanded because some thought that PM Bibi Netanyahu, known by many as a right-wing hawk, was not being tough enough on Hamas.
The past few months in my own life have not made me optimistic about peace either. I moved to the Israeli city of Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city with so much potential for positive shared society, but little to be found. I learned about the inequalities between Lod’s Arabs and Jews – about how some Arabs in Lod don’t receive basic municipal services while some Jews live in fancy villas. I learned that the municipal government is purportedly trying to transform Lod into a Jewish city by forcing Arabs to leave and encouraging Jews to move in. I learned that despite these issues, Lod’s Arabs had less local political representation than Arabs in other mixed cities.
I also learned about the deep divisions within Israeli-Jewish society that prevent it from addressing Israel’s many issues. I met with a high-ranking, orthodox-Jewish employee in the Lod municipality who refused to accept my reform Jewish practices, let alone the perspectives of Arabs. I met with an expert on Israel’s Ultra-orthodox Jewish population, and together we examined the growing gap between Israel’s religious and secular populations. I learned about racism in Israeli society towards Jews originally from Arabic speaking countries and Ethiopia.
Finally though, a cause for hope. Following recent municipal elections, Arab and Jewish parties came together to form unified governing coalitions in a number of mixed Arab-Jewish cities, including Lod, Ramle, and Jaffa. This is a promising development for a number of reasons.
- Arabs and Jews are working together! When we think of “peacebuilding,” we often think about two sides coming together to talk about their issues. But literature on peacebuilding suggests that a stronger path involves disparate groups building social trust and cohesion by working together towards shared goals (Koonce, 2011; Larsen, 2014; Luhmann, 1979; Schiefer, 2017). For me, Arabs and Jews working together to address local issues is a much stronger development for peace than Arabs and Jews simply coming together to talk about the conflict. In order to discuss bigger issues, like the conflict, the two sides must trust each other and have experience addressing smaller issues together. This is an opportunity to build that rapport.
- Both sides can experience the benefits of working with each other. Trust and willingness to work together will likely increase if both sides see benefits to working together. If things improve for the Arabs in Lod, they will hopefully associate those changes with their leaders’ willingness to work with Jews in the coalition (and vice versa).
- The coalition features unlikely partners. One might expect that for Arabs and Jews to work together both sides would need to come from left-wing parties. This was not the case in Lod. The mayor is from Likud, a right-wing Zionist party led by Bibi Netanyahu, which is commonly associated with war-mongering and anti-Arab sentiment. The coalition includes the Bayit Yehudi (“Jewish Home”) and Yisrael Beytenu parties, led by Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman (respectively), which are both even further to the right of Likud. This shows that even seemingly unlikely partners for peace can overlook ideology and focus on working with necessary partners to address the local issues at hand.
- Multiple Arab groups came together to form the coalition. Lod’s Arabs ran a unified list in this election for the first time, having previously been broken into numerous parties. Lod’s Arabs are fractured into 3-4 distinct communities that don’t often mix. Their running together shows a promising improvement in intra-community relations, and allowed them to win more seats on the city council than ever before, tying Likud for the most seats at 6.
- This is not a fluke. A mixed Arab-Jewish coalition didn’t only form in Lod – it also formed in mixed cities across the country. And so far, this phenomena is not just symbolic – the coalition in Lod has already worked together to pass the 2019 city budget.
This political development is truly exciting, and offers great promise for the state of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel. It also raises a number of questions, including: (1) why did Arab parties join together in one list; (2) why did Arab parties decide to join Jewish coalitions; and (3) why did Jewish parties welcome Arab parties into the coalition. Answering these questions could provide a framework and tools for creating even greater Arab-Jewish cooperation in the near future. I am currently researching these questions and will share what I find at a later date.
For now, feel free to be just a little more optimistic about the prospects of peace in the Holy Land.