Living in Israel during the current election season has triggered a whirlwind of emotions. With political parties forming and dissolving almost constantly, a prime minister seeking a fifth term in office while facing indictment on corruption charges, and Hamas firing rockets into central Israel from Gaza, I often find myself oscillating between a state of concern and intrigue.
As a volunteer in Lod, one of Israel’s most diverse cities, I have been fortunate enough to hear a wide range of opinions across the political spectrum over the last several months. One topic that often comes up in my conversations with local residents, particularly those from the Arab community, is the divisive campaign rhetoric. Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, current head of the country’s right-wing Likud government, has aimed to discourage citizens from supporting political rival Benny Gantz—a former military chief of staff—by claiming that Gantz intends to form a government with Arab parties after the elections on April 9th.
His claim has be echoed by other key political figures, including Culture Minister Miri Regev, who warned viewers in an interview last month that Gantz would have to rely on Arabs to form a government if Netanyahu loses the election. Among Regev’s viewers was prominent Israeli model and TV host Rotem Sela, who angrily posted the following on her Instagram story later that evening:
“Oh my god, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country for all its citizens. And every person was born equal. Arabs, too, God help us, are human beings.”
Seizing this social media opportunity, Netanyahu responded to Sela in an Instagram post of his own, featuring a picture of himself with the Israeli flag in the background. “Dear Rotem, an important correction,” he wrote. “Israel is not a state for all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and the Jewish people only. As you wrote, there’s no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel – they have the same rights as us all and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government.”
He continued, “Likud only asks to sharpen the central point of these elections: it’s either a strong right-wing government led by me, or Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz’s left-wing government with the support of the Arab parties. Lapid and Gantz have no other way to form a government, and a government like this will undermine the security of the state and citizens.”
Amidst the political commotion, Gantz has rejected this claim, commenting that he would only form a coalition with “anything that is Jewish.” Such discriminatory language from both frontrunners in the upcoming election has angered many Arab citizens. Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of a shared society organization called The Abraham Initiatives where I currently intern, told The Jewish Week in an interview, “We are knocking on the doors of the political parties. Just like Charedi Jews, we don’t have to agree with you on everything, but we are citizens…you cannot hide 20 percent of the country. You cannot marginalize us.”
In fact, the refusal of both Netanyahu and Gantz to include Arab parties in their coalitions clashes with a strong desire among Arab citizens to participate in the government, at least as of earlier this year. According to a survey conducted by The Abraham Initiatives in January, 64% support the participation of Arab parties in the government (68% in the event of a center-left government), 74% support reserving places for Arab ministers in the government, and 80% believe Arab parties should support the government in exchange for development budgets for Arab society. The survey also found that 61% of Arab citizens would vote for a Jewish-Arab party if one competed in the elections. Now, however, only around 50% of Arab citizens are expected to head to the polls, reflecting significantly decreased engagement with the elections.
Beyond anti-Arab rhetoric by leading candidates, there have also been more active exclusionary efforts by the Central Elections Committee. For example, the Committee voted to ban Ram-Balad, one of the Arab lists that had intended to run, due to its alleged support of violent resistance against Israel. It also revoked the candidacy of Ofer Cassif, a Jewish candidate from the mixed Arab-Jewish Hadash party. Both decisions have since been overturned by the High Court, though the fact that the Committee voted on such measures in the first place is telling.
In early March, The Abraham Initiatives sent a letter to President Reuven Rivlin asking that he take a stand against these political attacks against Arab citizens. One week later at a conference in Jerusalem, Rivlin stated, “I refused and refuse to believe that there are political parties that have surrendered the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish, state. Those who believe that the State of Israel must be Jewish and democratic in the full sense of the word must remember that the State of Israel has complete equality of rights for all its citizens.”
While it is disheartening that even Israel’s center-left politicians show intolerance towards Arab citizens, Rivlin’s statement does stir hope. The emergence of joint Arab-Jewish coalitions in all of Israel’s mixed city councils (Haifa, Acre, Lod, Ramle, Upper Nazareth, Ma’a lot Tarshiha, and Jaffa) following last year’s local elections also stirs hope. I am particularly inspired by the newly formed mixed governing coalition in Lod, as I find the Arab and Jewish populations are largely separated here, and I hope it serves as a model for greater inclusivity and partnership at the national level.