Ofer Bavly

The Arab Party and the Elections – a Fresh Opportunity

No doubt the biggest winner of Israel’s March elections is the United Arab List, with a record 15 Members of Knesset (MK’s). The party is actually a coalition made up of four smaller parties which traditionally ran separately. They joined hands in a united list in order to meet the higher Knesset vote threshold legislated in March 2014. Their fear was that four separate parties might miss the minimum threshold, whereas if they ran in a joint list there would be no fear for any of them. The move paid off and today, the United Arab List is the third largest party in the Knesset.

The growth of the Arab List is a source of concern for fear-mongers among us who warn of the impending doom if the Arabs should, God forbid, grow further. They point out the fact that the 15 MK’s are an under-representation of the Arab population which currently accounts for roughly 20% of the population. If all eligible Arabs vote and if they all vote for the one (now unified) party, they could actually have 24 seats in the Knesset. For some, this could mean nothing short of the demise of Israel as a Jewish State – a huge exaggeration by any stretch of the imagination.

The reason for some to be concerned about the Arab List’s strength is that all too often, party MK’s have expressed opinions (both privately and publicly) harshly criticizing Israel and its governments over policies on the Palestinian question In press interviews and from the Knesset podium, many Arab MK’s over the years have taken positions de-legitimizing the very existence of the state of Israel and even calling for its end. Some have gone as far as to express respect for and even agreement with terror attacks or individual terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands.

The fact that the Arab parties have traditionally held on to nationalist positions put them in direct confrontation with mainstream Jewish and Zionist parties and voters. Their position has also impeded them from joining any of Israel’s coalitions since 1948 – the Arab parties considered it tantamount to recognition of Israel as the Jewish State and a betrayal of their Palestinian brethren.

But over the years, a confrontation also arose between the Arab parties and their natural constituents. Arab citizens of Israel, while identifying with the plight of the Palestinian people and often expressing support for their demand of statehood and self-determination, nevertheless put their own daily lives first. Their needs for a higher standard of living, better infrastructures in their towns and villages, a better quality of education and access to health clinics were always more important to Arab voters who felt increasing frustration with their elected officials who seemed to put their national agenda before the needs of their voters. During the recent electoral campaign, as both mainstream parties declared their unwillingness to join hands with the Arab List in a future coalition government and even to  rely on the List’s support in Knesset, Arab voters reacted by coming out to vote in greater numbers than ever before. Their resentment of both Likud and Blue and White caused many Arabs who had previously abstained (either because they were frustrated with the Arab parties or because they felt detached from Israeli society and politics) to turn out to vote in unprecedented numbers: in April 2019, 50% of them voted. In September 2019, 59% voted. And in March 2020, 65% of Arabs participated in the elections, almost all of them voting for the United Arab List.

The time has now come for everyone to change course and outlook on the Arab participation in Israel’s politics. First and foremost, it is time for mainstream Zionist parties to change their position on the Arab party and to recognize that while some Arab MK’s do express views that are untenable for most Israelis, there is no reason to ostracize the entire Arab population of Israel for it. Expression of radical ideas, within the limitations of legitimate democratic discourse, must be allowed, and when it goes beyond what is acceptable it should be punished in accordance with the law. But taking the declarations of a number of Arab MK’s and extrapolating them to appear as representative of a million and a half Arab voters whose support has not been actively sought by Zionist or religious parties is an unacceptable generalization fueling demonization of an entire sector of our society. A healthy democratic society needs to accept that there would be dissenting voices among minorities which have felt – and indeed have been – slighted and ignored for decades. Israel is strong enough to accept such criticism and address the legitimate issues raised without discarding all criticism as being driven by nationalist hatred.

For their part, Arab citizens too have an important role to play and must come to the realization that with their new-found power in the Knesset come responsibilities. They are the third largest party and, in the event of a Likud-Blue and White unity government, will head the opposition – a symbolic yet important role in a democracy. It will be their task to lead a feisty opposition to the government, to call out its wrongs and its shortcomings and to present a viable alternative to government policy on all matters, including economics, health and education – not only on the national strategic issues. Arab voters should demand more accountability from their representatives. They should demand that in exchange for their vote, their representatives concentrate on improving the standard of living in Arab towns and villages, far more pressing for voters than a permanent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Arab voters do not demand this of their elected officials, nobody else will fight for their just cause.

Finally, the Arab MK’s, even those who virulently oppose the very existence of the State of Israel, are nevertheless cognizant of the irony in which they live: they criticize Israel as undemocratic and they are doing it from the podium of Israel’s parliament to which they are freely elected by their fellow Arabs (and Jews) and where they can freely speak against their country. They know better than anyone that they would never enjoy the same privilege of voting, being elected and speaking their mind in the parliament of any Arab or Muslim country in the world. In fact, all polls conducted among Israeli Arabs show that overwhelmingly, they would choose to remain citizens of Israel rather than moving to any Arab country – including a future State of Palestine, which they so whole-heartedly support. Arab MK’s cannot continue to use the Knesset as a stage only for anti-Israeli and pro- Palestinian rhetoric but must instead concentrate on passing important legislation benefiting their constituents and other minorities. They have a pivotal role in righting historical wrongs and closing the considerable gaps that exist between Arabs and Jews in all fields.

The stunning results of the March elections are an opportunity for Israeli society to further improve and hone its democratic character. Arab society needs to be embraced by mainstream Israel as part and parcel of our country with full rights as well as obligations. Arab voters need to urge their elected officials to make sure that their rights are respected. Seventy two years of sitting on the political sidelines has not achieved for Israeli Arabs what they deserve and what would actually strengthen the entire country. Arab Members of  Knesset need to deliver more concrete results for their voters and less hyperbole about Palestinian national needs, no matter how legitimate they may consider them. Everyone will be better off if these elections change the way we view each other – and interact with one another.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund
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