Arab parties emerge as electoral force in the Jewish state

By bringing together Arab political parties in the Joint List, Ayman Odeh has emerged as leader of the third-largest party in Israel. EPA/Atef Safadi

Israel’s election looked set to provide a big surprise, with the ouster of the country’s second-longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. That didn’t happen, but the election did offer a genuine surprise with the rise of the Arab Joint List as the third-largest party.

The State of Israel and the Zionist idea on which it is predicated are often criticised in ways that deny their legitimacy. It is not (just) policies of the government that are contested, but the very essence of the state, which is putatively “racist”, “colonialist” and “apartheid”. This campaign of deligitimacy is the foundation for the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which has gained traction on the political left.

The success of the Arab List demonstrates how simplistic these claims are and how hypocritical the BDS is.

The good and bad of Israeli politics

Election day saw the good and bad of Israeli politics. Netanyahu shamefully played the race card to rally support, but he did so in response to Arab citizens of Israel going to the polls in unprecedented numbers.

They had good reason to do so. While Israel was established as a Jewish and democratic state that guaranteed equality to all its citizens, and while Israeli Arabs have equality before the law, this minority has suffered economic disadvantage. The greater parliamentary representation they have, the greater their influence to improve their status.

The Arabs of Israel are uniquely placed in the Middle East to do this. While the Arab Spring has given rise to failed states and new dictatorships across the Middle East (with the exception of Tunisia), it is in Israel where the Arabs, who make up 20% of the population, have the opportunity to participate fully in democracy.

Israeli Arabs are able to freely select their candidates. They vote without physical intimidation in genuinely free elections in accordance with the rule of law. They sit in a parliament with real power, exerting checks and balances over the executive.

It is no coincidence that one of the most significant democratic political leaders to emerge in the Arab world is Ayman Odeh. He heads the Arab Joint List in Israel with a potential 15 members of a 120-seat parliament.

It may be some time before the exact make-up of the Israeli government is known because of the coalition-building process. While a national unity government is unlikely, President Reuben Rivlin, who has an active role in determining who forms the next government, said that this is the type government he wants to try and establish.

Were he to succeed, Odeh would be the leader of the opposition, with all the official status, taxpayer-funded support and constitutional role bestowed on this position.

Israeli Arabs set a democratic example

As sectarian warfare has led to devastating internecine conflicts in the Arab world, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions homeless, the nature of living in a democracy and participation in an election in Israel has seen the Arab parties learn to cooperate despite their profoundly different worldviews: secular, religious, communist, nationalist, Pan-Arab. Many Israeli parties are themselves coalitions of smaller parties.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s shameful reference to Arab voters was nonetheless a mark of their emergence as a political force in Israel. EPA/Tali Mayer

This is why the Arab parties have flexed their electoral muscle in a way they never have before. Those struggling for democracy in the wider Middle East would do well to take a leaf out of the Israeli electoral book.

Arab participation in the Israeli democracy does not mean Israel is a perfect democracy – does such a thing exist? While Netanyahu’s election-day barb about the need for Israeli Jews to vote to counter the large Arab turnout won him support on the centre right, it caused opprobrium on the centre left who saw it as inimical to their values.

The Arab List’s own campaign ad, which sought the support of Jewish voters (with Odeh rocking up at a Tel Aviv family’s Sabbath dinner), showed that this party saw allies in the wider Israeli community.

Israel wrestles with democratic identity

A hard line on the peace process does not necessarily mean a hard line on the Arab citizens of Israel. Rivlin was a Likud MK and opponent of the two-state solution who championed Arab rights while in the Knesset. He has continued to do so as head of state, declaring to Israeli Arabs:

The burden is on us to build the bridges to you.

That’s not surprising from a man whose father was a scholar who translated the Quran and 1,001 Nights into Hebrew.

It is essential to note that we are only talking about Arab citizens of Israel. The vote does not extend to the West Bank and Hamas rule in Gaza, specifically because Israel has not annexed these territories. Rather, it governs them militarily in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and the Declaration Principles and the Palestinian Authority.

This poses a medium-term question for Israel about whether it will continue to be a democracy if it chooses to annex these territories. Does it deny the Arab residents the vote, or grant them the vote and thus became a bi-national state, bringing an end to the Zionist dream of Jewish people having a state of their own? This is a major challenge confronting the next Israeli government.

Israel’s approach to the Palestinian issue will ultimately effect the sort of democracy Israel is. However, that policy will be genuinely scrutinised by the Arab members of the next Israeli parliament to whom that government will be accountable.

That process may even provide the Arab List with an opportunity to advance the peace process, as the Arab Knesset members did by providing Yitzhak Rabin with the Knesset majority he needed as prime minister to pursue the peace process with Yasser Arafat in 1993.

The Arab List’s success does not mean Odeh can compel an Israeli government to forge ahead and reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Nor does it guarantee economic equality in Israel. But it does demonstrate Israeli democracy and government policy are two distinct things.

If critics of Israeli policy wish to seriously engage on the latter, it is time they ceased their hollow “racist, colonialist and apartheid state” rhetoric against the former. The election results demonstrate that Israel is, as its founding declaration promised, a Jewish and a democratic state.

There was fiery rhetoric from Jews and Arabs during the campaign and for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state both sides need to lower their rhetoric. Official Likud “regret” at Netanyahu’s election statement about Arab votes and a commitment by Likud to govern for all of Israel’s citizens is a good start. As Rivlin said:

We’ve been through a stormy and passionate election season – this is the time to begin the process of fusing and healing Israeli society. The government that will be formed was chosen by the majority of Israel’s citizens, but it will have to answer to all of Israel’s citizens.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.