For years, Arab politics have found expression more notably through bullets than ballots. Even in the new democracies of Tunisia and Egypt, electoral processes have been overshadowed by terrorism and violent crackdowns. In Israel however, which has long lived in war and conflict with neighboring states and occupied populations, it is Arab votes that are now making headlines.
In an ironic response to legislation intended to exclude Arab parties from holding seats in the Knesset, Israel’s Arab politicians united on a single ticket ahead of last week’s election. For the first time, Palestinian citizens of Israel showed political strength through voting as a bloc. This demonstrated the potential that Arab citizens, frustrated with what they view as their second-class status, could abandon their traditional boycott of national elections and vote en masse. Aware of the anxiety this caused within the Jewish mainstream, Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to bolster right wing support on election day by warning that “Arab voters are coming out in droves.” Netanyahu’s fear-mongering was not a response to actual increased Arab turnout (which hardly materialized), nor was it simply about this election. Rather, it capitalized on a deep insecurity that goes largely unaddressed by the right: Israel cannot be democratic and Jewish-governed while rejecting a two-state solution.
By accepting a two-state plan in theory, Netanyahu’s rhetoric has previously allowed for the possibility that Israel can maintain Zionist leadership without surrendering its democracy. However, a day before the election, desperate to pick up votes from the far right, Netanyahu paused his two-state charade and declared that he would prevent Palestinian statehood so long as he had the power to do so. Within the paradigm created by an Israeli premier’s outright rejection of Palestinian statehood, the impossibility of long-term democratic Jewish governance cannot be denied.
In this context, Arab voters are not viewed simply as members of an ethnic minority voicing their group interests. Without the possibility of a two-state future, the specter of Arab citizens uniting as a single political bloc awakened a fear that, within greater Israel, Palestinians’ demographic advantage could be transformed into democratic dominance. Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are not Israeli citizens and therefore not eligible participants in national Israeli elections. But what if, seeing their desire for independent statehood taken off the table by the Israeli Prime Minister, they advocate instead for democratic rights within the Israeli system?
Even on the right, this is not a new fear. But, by insisting on his willingness to pursue a two-state solution, Netanyahu was able to publically dismiss this possibility. He could insist that Palestinians had no right to vote in Israeli national elections, because they had their own. Additionally, even as more than 20% of the Israeli population, divisions among Arab citizens of Israel and preference for boycott over participation has prevented them from gaining political significance. But when rejection of two-state options coincided with savvy Arab political strategy, a Prime Minister otherwise known for his supreme confidence spent election day posting a desperate racist video on Facebook.
Unable to proceed within this paradigm, Netanyahu reverted to his rhetorical support for two states immediately upon securing electoral victory. His need for far right votes satisfied, he cannot govern while acknowledging that Israel surrenders its democracy or Jewish majority without a two-state solution. But reopening the two-state door might not be so easy. After grudgingly enabling Netanyahu’s disingenuous rhetoric for six years, the Obama administration has seized the opportunity to question his sincerity.
While the election day appeal secured Netanyahu extended rule, his desperation could prove instructive to Palestinian observers. If the two-state solution is acknowledged as dead, will Palestinians organize around electoral access and victories rather than independent statehood? Palestinian activists and academics have long argued that their national movement should forgo demands for statehood and advocate for democratic rights within Israel instead. They argue: “We are done fighting. Your settlements have made independence impossible. Just give us civil rights under your laws, and let us vote.”
A mass-movement based on these principles would lack the traditional optics and headlines of an intifada. Rather than rejection, it would be based on radical acceptance of Israel’s right to exist and even govern Palestinian territory. It would have to be staunchly non-violent. And yet, by attempting to add 4.5 million Palestinians to the Israeli voting rolls, it would threaten to transform Israel into a Palestinian majority state that could democratically elect a Palestinian government. It would be an “anti-intifada.”
Those currently advocating for the extension of civil and voting rights to non-citizen Palestinians do so sincerely. However, if the Palestinian Authority plans on continuing to pursue independent statehood, they may be best equipped with an inverse of Netanyahu’s rhetoric: Netanyahu does not want a Palestinian state, and therefore he says that he does. If the West Bank political establishment actually wants a Palestinian state, they should say that they do not.
Such a movement could not be put down with military force. Its defeat would require demonstration of its impracticality, its absurdity. And that would require concrete Israeli action to establish a Palestinian state, not rhetorical illusions. An Israeli public reckoning with the prospect of an anti-intifada would have greater incentive to support leadership sincerely seeking a two-state solution. Activists and academics are not enough, but if Palestinian leaders rhetorically set aside independence and lock their aim on Israeli ballots, it could push Israeli policy in directions that bullets never did.