Arab parties have always been in the Knesset. Moreover, representatives from these Arab parties have always served on committees and voted on laws like any other members of Knesset. Nevertheless, the Arab parties have never been part of the governing coalition. Part of the reason for this is history.
Israel was founded in an existential war. When the British mandate ended, and Israel declared itself a state on the land which the UN partition plan gave it, the Jews found themselves at war with five Arab countries. Moreover, the Palestinian Arabs living in the land were on the side of these countries, hoping to liberate all the land from the Jews, and establish one country of Palestine. In that country, Jews would be a ruled minority, though I doubt many Jews would have survived; the mufti at the time, Haj Amin al-Husseini (1897–1974), was a supporter of Hitler after all.
Having won the war, Israel established a democracy, including voting rights for the Israeli Arabs, who elected their own representatives to the Knesset, as noted above. But this does not mean that Arabs were viewed by the Jewish majority as “just another group of Israelis.” Instead, fear that the disgruntled minority would always choose the other side in a conflict and would thus work against Israel’s security interests were always at the forefront of how the Arab parties were viewed by Jewish Israelis, including fellow MKs.
Now more than 70 years later, with the Arab parties having received 15 seats in the Knesset (out of 120), and the existential threat against Israel from invading Arab neighbors greatly minimized—though still an acute concern—the debate about whether it is “legitimate” to include Arab parties in the governing coalition has come to the fore.
To my mind, the strong opposition we are seeing to Gantz’s suggestion that a ruling minority coalition be formed with the support of the Joint List comes from two places: The Joint List platform and Jewish parochialism. The first problem tends to be ignored by the left and the second by the right, but it is vital that we shine some light on both of these.
For a long time, the Arab parties have functioned like a protest movement. As a minority, often viewed with suspicion by the majority, the Arab parties tend to double down on their opposition to Israel’s narrative. Thus, they would likely respond to what I wrote above about Israeli history that I am telling the story exclusively from a Jewish perspective. From the perspective of Palestinians, the UN plan was simply unfair. The world felt guilty for killing Jews in the Holocaust, and so allowed them to carve up what had been Arab land for centuries, and create the colonialist, Zionist state.
As I wrote in my “Palestinian Nakba and Israeli Independence: Telling Two Incomplete Stories,” I understand this perspective, and the need for Jews to see where the other side is coming from. Nevertheless, from there to a willingness to endanger my own country and my people is quite a long route. One important reason to see the Joint List as a danger is that the rhetoric of the party implies that it remains actively anti-Zionist, that the leadership still sees Israel as an illegitimate country.
For example, just recently Ahmad Tibi, head of the ostensibly moderate Ta’al party, said that he objects to the term “land of Israel” because it is “colonialist.” Similarly, Aida Touma-Suleiman, from the Hadash party—the most moderate element of the Joint List—said that she would like to see the Jewish right of Aliyah to Israel cancelled. These comments do not inspire confidence in the Jewish Israeli voter that we can partner with the Joint List, and I haven’t even quoted the platform of the more radical Arab nationalist party Balad who hold three of the Joint List’s 15 seats! Mtanes Shihadeh is not Lucy Aharish, no matter how much some voters might want him to be.
I worry that when my friends on the left dismiss these concerns as nothing to worry about, they are acting naively, confirming the average Jewish voter’s belief that the Jewish left is suicidal and can’t be trusted.
Unfortunately, concerns over the Joint List platform often mask something more pernicious, namely prejudice against Arabs. Looking at many of the posts of my right wing friends, I see a constant theme that Arab=terrorist. Allowing the Joint List into the governing coalition, or even simply relying on their support, is the equivalent, in their minds, of making the head of Hamas into Israel’s defense minister. And it further seems that this isn’t merely because of something Odeh or Tibi said to upset them, but because Arabs are still the enemy in their minds, even Israel Arabs.
It is because of this attitude that Bibi Netanyahu and others from the Likud thought it was legitimate to speak about the Israeli right defeating the Israeli left 58 to 47, i.e., without counting the Joint List and its constituency at all. This essentially says that Arab voting rights are chimerical, since when we discuss forming governments, we simply subtract the Arab parties automatically, as if they weren’t there.
This is also why Likud is claiming that what the Blue and White party is doing now violates the rules of the game. Blue and White cannot form a government without the support of the Joint List so, according to the rules of the Arabs-don’t-count game, they shouldn’t form one at all.
What I haven’t seen on the right, however, is any action plan as to how Arab Israelis could make their votes count, other than by voting for Jewish parties. Without such reflection, the right-wing stance on what is or is not legitimate is not really about platform but ethnicity. For a democratic country, even one that is overall Jewish, this is a serious problem.
What the Joint List Can Do
Though I have no solution to these problems, it seems to me that part of the solution lies with the Joint List itself. The question, to my mind, is whether the Arab parties can turn a corner. For a long time, they were essentially a protest movement. Can they now evolve into an Israeli political party?
To do so, they will have to acknowledge that at least part of their traditional longing to “fix the historical crime [of Israel]” needs to be put aside. Israel is a fact. The place of Arabs in the country can be strengthened, but the Jewish character of the country, and Israel’s important relationship with Jews throughout the world, cannot be erased.
Perhaps the current crisis over the Joint List’s place in Israeli politics can be the crucible in which Arab-Israeli politicians such as Ayman Odeh can be forged into Israeli leaders of the left, representing the interests of all Israel’s citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. Such a development would change the face of Israeli politics entirely, and to my mind, for the better.