Seventy-one years after Israel’s independence, Arab participation in any Israeli government has been almost non-existent, and yet over 20% of Israel’s population is Arab. This lack of participation is not healthy for Israeli democracy, and it is especially not healthy for Israeli Arabs nor for Palestinians.
The small number of Arab MKs (in the current Knesset, only 10% of MKs are Arab) is part of the problem because it makes it easier for leading parties to ignore Arab parties when they form coalitions. Another reason is that Zionist politicians are concerned about including Arab MKs who have a reputation for being anti-Israel. This is not only true for right-wing politicians, but also for centrist and center-left politicians. Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White party said in March 2019 that he cannot “have any political discourse” with Arab parties because Israeli Arab politicians “speak against the State of Israel”.
One Israeli Arab, Ayman Odeh, currently the leading Arab MK, may slowly be changing this perception. He is a young and well-spoken politician who previously served on the Haifa City Council where he built good working relationships with Jewish councilors. Odeh tries to project an image of moderate, and he states his belief that “Arabs and Jews must work together”.
Some Israeli Arabs shun Israeli democracy and promote a boycott, but Odeh rejects that approach. He said, “It is unthinkable that decisions regarding our lives, our towns and villages, our education system, our society, will be taken without our participation. And with a strong representation in the Knesset, we will be not mere spectators on the political process, but active, leading and influencing it”.
In May 2019, Odeh was one of the speakers at an anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv that was mainly organized by the Blue and White party. Odeh said, “I am here today because I believe that Jewish-Arab partnership is the only way to [achieve] hope and change”. In the current election, Odeh is trying to boost Arab turnout, and he hopes that “it could be enough to tip the scales in Israel’s fractured political landscape and finally topple [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu”.
If Arab voters raise the percentage Arab MKs to the representative rate of 20%, they could make a huge difference in Israeli politics. Perhaps many Arabs do not vote because they feel that they have no influence, but the fewer of them vote, the less influence they are likely to have.
Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equality in Israel, believes that more Arabs are interested in voting in this election because “The Arabs haven’t stopped supporting the Palestinians, but they know that peace will take time. The other issues are more urgent”, implying that many Arabs feel that there is a contradiction between voting in Israeli elections and supporting the Palestinians. In fact, the reverse is true. The larger the number of Arab MKs, the better Israeli Arabs can help the Palestinians.
Arab MKs can of course push the government to resolve the issues that Israeli Arabs are facing, but they can also push the Israeli government to take actions that would benefit the Palestinians, such as freezing settlement construction and initiating peace discussions with the Palestinians.
A poll conducted by a joint Israeli/Palestinian organization in 2018 found that even though only 21% of Palestinians believe that Israeli Jews can be trusted, the rate of trust that Israeli Arabs have for Israeli Jews is almost triple, at 61%. At the same time, Israeli Arabs strongly support the Palestinians’ quest for statehood – the same poll found that Israeli Arabs support a two-state solution at the rate of 82%.
Israeli Arabs, whom Ray Hanania, a Palestinian American journalist, calls Israeli Palestinians, can play a key role in helping Palestinians and Israeli Jews understand each other better, and the more of them are in the Knesset and at the cabinet table, the more effective that role can be.
As Hanania wrote in Arab News about the ongoing election, “This opportunity is not only about helping to elect a more moderate Jewish leadership to govern Israel. It is about making a powerful statement that could awaken Israel’s near-comatose political Left, which is the last hope for a two-state solution. It is about making a statement of self-respect. Voting in the next election is about telling the world that Palestinians do have rights.”
Israeli Arabs must go to the polls on September 17 with their heads held high and with their conscience clear that they are not only doing this for themselves but also for the Palestinians.