Israel finds itself at a crossroad regarding its Arab population and its political representation.
The Joint List, made up of three Arab parties and one Muslim/Jewish/Christian party, won 15 seats in the March 2 election, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. Israel is now in the post-election process of trying to form a government, which requires a Knesset majority of at least 61 seats. Since no party won anywhere close to that number of seats – with Likud at 36 and Blue and White at 33 the two highest amounts – a coalition will need to be formed with many parties, as has been true since Israel’s founding.
Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues to serve as interim prime minister, has called on Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, to form an emergency unity government in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Netanyahu was very specific, calling on all parties to join this unity government except for the Joint List. Netanyahu said he has no problem with the country’s Arab population, but he cannot work with the radical members of the Joint List. Gantz replied that a unity government must include ALL parties in the Knesset, representing ALL of Israel’s populations, including the Joint List.
The issue is not the Arab parties being represented in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative branch. The Joint List earned 15 seats on March 2, and those Arab Knesset members will vote in the Knesset plenary, serve and even head Knesset committees and lobbies, and at least one Arab MK will serve as a deputy speaker of the parliament. No, the debate is over Joint List representatives being accepted into the executive branch to serve as government ministers.
The Joint List has made it clear that even if asked, it will not be part of a unity government that includes Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wing. No surprise there, Arab parties have never joined any coalition, because they refuse to be part of a government that supports “the occupation.” But the Joint List is currently interested in a Center-Left government led by Benny Gantz, and are thus willing to either join such a government or vote for its establishment even if the party doesn’t actually serve in it.
But it is not only Netanyahu and his right-wing/religious bloc that are against including the Joint List in a government. At least three members of Gantz’s potential Center-Left coalition have made it clear that they will not vote in favor of any government that requires the support of the Joint List. Those three voting against will bring Gantz below the 61-seat majority he would need to form a government.
And now progress has been made in negotiations for a unity government and Gantz, who throughout the campaign promised not to partner with the Joint List, is likely to join without the Arab parties.
Why is there so much opposition to the Joint List joining the government?
Given that 90% of Arab voters chose the Joint List, isn’t keeping them out of the government an act of outright racism and discrimination against Israel’s Arab population?
This is how the issue will be portrayed in media outlets throughout the world, when failure to form a government will be seen as (yet) another example of Israel’s supposed intolerance and bigotry.
But that is simply not the truth.
There is no doubt, sadly, that there is racism in Israel – especially in the extreme right – as exists in all countries. But that is not what drives the rejection of the Joint List joining an Israeli government. After all, Arab Israelis have served as Supreme Court justices, chaired its National Bank, played on its national teams, and have won its beauty pageants. So why is there objection to members of the Joint List serving as government ministers, or being the deciding prop-up votes to form a government?
The answer is found in the Joint List platform and in statements made by the Joint List representatives themselves regarding what they expect from a government that they join or support.
A few examples:
- MK Ahmed Tib said on February 27, 2020 that the Joint List will not allow any government that it joins or supports to carry out air strikes in Gaza.
Israel attacks Gaza from the air to destroy missile launchers that shoot rockets into Israeli cities indiscriminately. A majority of Jewish Israelis reject the idea of someone like Tibi having the power to stop Israel from protecting itself via these air strikes in Gaza.
- In 2015, MK Heba Yazbak posted praise for terrorist Samir Kuntar – he who kidnapped 31-year-old Israeli Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat on April 22, 1979, took them to a nearby beach, shot Danny at close range, and then killed Einat by smashing her head against the rocks.
What government in the world would allow the inclusion of coalition members who praises a terrorist who carries out such a brutal attack on its citizens?
- MK Aida Touma-Sliman announced on March 9 that one of the conditions for the Joint List joining a government would be the nullification of Israel’s Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to Jews. One of the founding principles behind the establishment of Israel – indeed, the first law ever passed – was that it would be a Jewish state to provide safe haven for Jews around the world in the form of automatic citizenship.
This demand reflects the platform of the Joint List that rejects outright Israel’s founding doctrine as a Jewish state. Repealing this law is part of that effort. While it is completely legitimate for a party to have this opinion and include it in its platform – however incongruous it is with the bases of the State of Israel – a vast majority of Jewish Israelis want Israel to remain the one and only Jewish state in the world (there are 50 Muslim-majority countries), and thus reject this condition. That means the Joint List can’t join an Israeli government.
There are many other examples of the party’s lawmakers praising terrorists, banning Jews from the Temple Mount, and expressing other extremist stances that prevent Joint List representatives from being accepted as ministers in an Israeli government, or as votes needed to support the existence of an Israeli government.
And that is the crossroads in which Israeli finds itself. Does it allow a party to join the government and risk it forcing policies that hurt Israel’s security, and its very definition as a Jewish state?
Or does Israel prevent the party from joining the government, and risk disenfranchising 20% of its population and the ensuing reports around the world of Israel being racist and discriminatory?
Do we really have a choice?