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Jonathan Feldstein
Husband, father, grandfather, bridge-builder, Zionist

Israel’s Arab Come to Jesus Moment

A time when the Joint List was unified, (l-r) MKs Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, Ahmed Tibi. Source: WikiMedia Commons, Zaher 333, licensed  https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en
A time when the Joint List was unified, (l-r) MKs Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh, Ahmed Tibi. Source: WikiMedia Commons, Zaher 333, licensed https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en

Unless I missed something, there are hardly any Arab and Druze candidates for Knesset on all the respective lists of all Israel’s mainstream nationalist political parties. Perhaps there are a handful in any realistic place on all the parties’ respective lists with a chance to be elected. Maybe fewer than a handful.

This represents a gross failure of leadership potential for the upcoming election in the wake of the results of the previous 2021 election. It’s especially so for the parties that do not have a democratic primary, whose members vote to select their party’s list. That’s most of them.

The non-democratic parties are at fault because a small cadre of people appoint who is on their lists and in what spot they are. It is astounding that almost nobody thought or cared enough to place Arabs and Druze in realistic positions to be elected.

One can mostly fault the democratic process among the few parties that vote on who is on their list and in what spot. However, in the past year, there could have been a proactive effort to engage Arabs to be part of their campaigns.

Why should they have done this?

First of all, one in five Israelis are Arabs and Druze, a smaller minority who are not considered Arabs but do speak Arabic and (unlike most Arab-Israelis) serve in the Army as proud Israelis. If you cut out the far right and ultra-orthodox parties that basically want nothing to do with Arabs, and are surely not competing for Arab/Druze votes, that might bring the Arab/Druze representation to as high as one in four. That’s a significant chunk of the electorate.

Second, with the breaking of the ice a year ago of Ra’am, an Israeli Arab Islamist party, joining a government coalition for the first time, whether that represents a trend or not, the nationalist parties certainly had the opportunity to reach out to Arab/Druze leaders and voters to embrace or at least include them. Ra’am broke the taboo on Arab participation in the government and that was supported by about 40% of the Israeli Arabs who voted for (then) one of the two Arab parties running for Knesset.

In American political terms, there’s the notion of reaching across the aisle. In Israel there’s no such concept, but with Israeli society divided loosely among ultra-Orthodox, religious Zionist, secular and Arab sectors, reaching out to one of those sectors in which attitudes may be shifting would have been smart. It could have even been key to a further progressing of the integration of Israeli Arabs.

Finally, while nobody had a crystal ball and could predict it, the last-minute split in the other Arab party, the Joint List, gives Israeli Arab voters a choice to make as to how they want to be engaging and seen within Israeli society. The Joint List was made up of three different factions that agreed to run together several years ago. At one point they had as many as 15 seats in the Knesset, nearly 15%. This year Balad, one of the factions that made up the Joint List, decided to run on its own. In all likelihood, Balad will not receive enough votes to pass the 3.25% threshold to make it into the Knesset at all. Possibly neither party will make it. That leaves Ra’am as one of possibly two parties that will be elected to Knesset and give Israeli Arabs a thoughtful choice to make about who to vote for.

Maybe they’ll still vote for one of the traditional Arab parties. But what if some of the mainstream nationalist parties included Arabs at places on their respective lists that were not just realistic but probable? They could have campaigned in the Arab and Druze communities from a position of inclusion rather than, at best, lip service. What might that have said to Israeli Arabs about giving them another choice, not among which Arab party to vote for, but a nationalist party that could bridge the gap that Ra’am began and broke the ice for.

Is it probable? Perhaps not? But not impossible.

It may be too late for the November 2022 election. But the way things are looking, if no party or logical coalition of parties have the mandates to form a government this year, Israel will have another election in early 2023. After what will be five elections in under four years, to that end, it’s a wake-up call to where the parties ought to be looking to shake things up and make changes rather than another stalemate in 2023: Israel’s come to Jesus moment.

But this year is also the come to Jesus moment for Israeli Arabs. They have a variety of choices before them. First of all, they have the option to fulfill their right as citizens and vote. Current polls are projecting they may stay home in record numbers due to apathy and dissatisfaction with their options, specifically among three Arab parties that are running.

If they vote for the anti-Zionist party, Balad, they will be expressing reproach for Israel and their place as citizens. This will also be throwing their votes away if Balad doesn’t to pass the minimum number of votes to make it to the Knesset. If they vote for one of the other parties, maybe they will make a difference, especially if they elect to join a government coalition and advocate for the interests of their community.

Or they could shake things up and vote for one of the several nationalist parties across the political spectrum, albeit that these parties basically left them out.

In 2004, a dear Arab Israeli friend reproached me for agreeing that Israeli Arabs are second class citizens, not because there’s discrimination per se but because they don’t do military or national service, and therefore are (self) isolated from many areas of Israeli life. She wagged her finger at me and said, “Don’t give them (Israeli Arabs) the excuse to blame Israel for all their problems. They need to take responsibility for their lives and fix the problems they have.”

I’ll never forget that. November’s election could be/have been that opportunity to see Israeli Arabs integrated into society much more than they have been. Not including Arabs/Druze in more realistic spots on the lists of the mainstream parties that will be in the next Knesset is a failure of imagination and potential.

 

About the Author
Jonathan Feldstein made aliyah in 2004, is married and the father of six children, two children in love, and three grandchildren (so far). He is a long time Jewish non-profit professional. As president of the Genesis 123 Foundation (www.Genesis123.co) he works closely with Christians all over the world who support Israel, building bridges in ways that are new, unique and meaningful. He hosts the Inspiration from Zion podcast, and published a stunning book, "Israel the Miracle" to celebrate Israel's 75th anniversary, featuring 75 essays from Christian leaders all over the world (www.IsraeltheMiracle.com).