Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Slow-Moving, Real Political Earthquake

Tectonic pressure is never seen and moves slowly – but its effect can be huge. Israel is presently undergoing such a political pre-“earthquake”, but it’s not what the media are focusing on (Bibi vs Gantz etc.). Rather, it’s occurring among the Israeli-Arabs, and the effects ultimately will be nothing short of revolutionary.

Immediately after Israel’s War of Independence the remaining Arabs in the country were viewed by Israeli Jews with great suspicion and wariness. That made sense given their massive, humiliating defeat – and ongoing enmity of neighboring Arab countries. Indeed, until 1966 Israeli Arabs lived under a military administration with severe restrictions. Despite their being given full civil rights thereafter, the situation in one important respect got even worse when Israel conquered the West Bank/Judea & Samaria – because now Israel’s local Arabs (quite naturally) supported the “emancipation” of their cousins over the Green Line. The Israeli Arab parties quickly picked up the baton and ever since have made a Palestinian state their number one platform priority.

However, the Arab “street” continued to evolve and despite all Israeli governments’ several discriminatory policies (e.g., preventing town expansion and residential zoning), Israel’s Arab sector slowly advanced socio-economically. Education increased significantly, birthrates plummeted from an unsustainable 8 per family to under just above 3 per family today, several Arabs (not all of them Moslem; Druze and Christian as well) made it to the top of their respective professional institutions (e.g., Arab Supreme Court Justice), and more recently the younger ones have entered several high-level professions in droves (e.g., pharmacists; dentists).

Their parties did not keep up – still harping on the Palestinian conflict above all. This has recently reached a boiling point and exploded when the head of one of the Arab parties (Mansour Abbas – not to be confused with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas) suggested a few weeks ago that he was willing to “work with” PM Netanyahu as long as the latter was willing to provide real resources to the Arab community. The other Arab parties went ballistic (all four parties are in a temporary political coalition, running as one slate – the Joint List). Of course, the pollsters immediately jumped into the fray, and lo and behold – they discovered that a significant majority of Israel’s Arab citizens were in general agreement with this more realistic and functional approach! Abbas refused to back off, much to Netanyahu’s gratification – only to turn into dismay when Gideon Saar upended all previous electoral scenarios with his defection from the Likud. Abbas realized that Netanyahu might not even be the next prime minister and has even suggested that he could work with any Right-wing leader and government.

Nevertheless, the principle is clear: Israel’s Arab community is willing to join the mainstream of Israeli politics – even if at this stage of the process that does not mean they will be formally part of any governing coalition in the foreseeable future. An even more recent example: an Arab businesswoman, Alham Kazan, announced that she is running for the position of no less than Israel’s President (!), and has received widespread Israeli-Arab support – something inconceivable even a decade ago. Clearly, she will not be elected, but the message is clear: Israel’s Arabs are eager to be considered part of the Israeli political game.

The ramifications for Israel in general – and Israeli politics in particular – are huge. First, their socio-political (not necessarily “cultural”) “assimilation” into Israeli society will eventually remove one more serious social cleavage that Israel has had to deal with. Second, as they are naturally more in tune with “Left” socio-economic policy, that will moderate the hyper-capitalism of the Likud. Third and paradoxically, given that Israel’s Arabs tend to be more religiously “traditional” (despite many being “secular” – only an oxymoron in the West), on certain Religion & State issues they will tend to support ultra-Orthodox positions (e.g., maintaining the authority of the religious court system)! Fourth – and somewhat “contradicting” the previous points, Israeli society could find itself with a new “issue”: Jewish-Arab intermarriage (at the moment, statistically almost non-existent, despite a couple of such well-covered marriages between an Israeli and an Arab “celebrity”).

In the shorter term – the probable upcoming elections and future ballots in the coming years – this overall development presents Netanyahu (and any other Right-wing leader) with an electoral headache. No longer can Bibi use the same trope he employed in 2015 (“the Arabs are going to the ballot box in droves!”) to get out the right-wing vote. After all, he has already made it clear that he is willing to “negotiate” with an Arab party. Indeed, the more Israel’s Arabs follow their Arab compatriots overseas (Emirates, Morocco etc.) and render the Palestinian issue a side-show, the less they will be viewed by Israel’s Jewish majority as a threat – with all the attendant consequences for future political constellations.

Indeed, there are already tentative signs of such change in Israel’s Jewish society. One can’t prove anything from a single event, but what happened last week regarding the 50% sale of Israel’s Beitar Jerusalem soccer team to a United Arab Emirates sheikh (!) was unprecedented on several levels. This team is (was?) Israel’s bastion of anti-Arab racism, to the extent that its most ardent group of fans (“La Familia”) refused for years to allow management to hire any Arab player for the team. When the recent sale was announced, they rioted – and were immediately rebuffed by a much larger group of Beitar fans who welcomed the deal!! (Normally, I try not to overuse exclamation points, but there is no other way to convey the heretofore “impossibility” of such a confluence of events.)

When an earthquake finally does occur, everyone seems surprised. But this general tectonic shift is clear. We’ll have to wait and see what eventually gets toppled and what takes its place, but there’s no denying that this one will be very high on Israel’s sociopolitical Richter scale.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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