National Elections 2019 – Status Report from the Perspective of the Arab Minority within the Israeli Citizenry

April 9, 2019, is the date set for elections to State of Israel’s 21st Knesset. These elections are important and challenging from many aspects, but this article will focus mainly on the perspective of the Arab minority within the Israeli citizenry. This group constitutes approximately one fifth of the state’s citizens and approximately 16.5% of eligible voters.

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Election night in Nazareth

April 9, 2019, is the date set for elections to State of Israel’s 21st Knesset. These elections are important and challenging from many aspects, but this article will focus mainly on the perspective of the Arab minority within the Israeli citizenry. This group constitutes approximately one fifth of the state’s citizens and approximately 16.5% of eligible voters. Since 1996, the Arab population has been represented in the Knesset by four parties: Hadash – Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, Ta’al – Arab Movement for Renewal, The United Arab List – Ra’am, and Balad –  National Democratic Assembly. In the last elections, held in 2015, following the raising of the minimum number of votes required to enter the Knesset (the electoral threshold), the four abovementioned parties united to form a party called The Joint List. In an age of destructive and bloody struggles between various ideological or ethnic groups across the Arab world, the alliance between communist Arabs (the Hadash Party), nationals (Balad), Islamists (Ra’am) (Ta’al is not identified with an ideological stream. Its voters are mainly secular or traditional), is viewed on the Arab street as a historical and empowering achievement. And indeed, this list was relatively successful in bringing 13 MKs into the Knesset (12 Arabs and one Jew, from the Hadash party), after receiving 80% of the Arab vote. However,  disagreements regarding the relative power representation of the different parties in the Joint Arab List led recently to its splitting into two separate lists: Hadash and Ta’al on the one hand, and Ra’am and Balad on the other. As anticipated, the disappointment at the Joint List’s splitting into two in the present elections was as great as the joy that ushered in its creation, particularly since the split was not the result of ideological disagreements in the party.

Incitement by the Prime Minister and the Previous Election Campaign

The Arabs are a linguistic, ethnic, national and indigenous group that is clearly distinct from the Jewish majority in Israel. This group is also religiously distinguished, whereby 80% are Arab Muslim, and the rest, in equal parts are Arab Christian and Arab Druze. Throughout the course of history, the Arab minority has absorbed many racial attacks by senior Jewish Israeli politicians, although under Netanyahu’s rule, these attacks have escalated to an unprecedented extent. On the last day before the previous elections, Netanyahu released an infamous video in which he warned that “the Arab voters are descending upon the polls in droves.” He even made sure, as we learned from the draft of charges (pending a hearing) recently submitted against him, that this statement would be widely and frequently publicized on the popular “Walla” news website. This exercise in racist intimidation succeeded in drawing more voters from Netanyahu’s “base” to the polls, or in leading right-wing voters to vote for the Likud party. After entering office, Netanyahu offered a half-baked apology for his racist statement, only to subsequently turn this practice into one of the characterizing features of his last term.

Netanyahu, it turns out, understood that to incite against the Arabs is simply politically expedient. Based on this understanding, during his last term, Netanyahu called Arab society “a state within a state” in a manner that presents this population as serial law disturbers, or, even worse, potential irredentists. During the fires that raged in Haifa in 2016 (the “fire terrorism”), he falsely insinuated that members of this society were involved in causing them. Netanyahu even did not hesitate to propagate a blatant lie accusing Arab leaders of waving ISIS flags at their demonstrations. Even worse, after these accusations were completely repudiated, Netanyahu never bothered to retract or apologize for his racist and injurious statements. Towards the end of his term, this political practice and perspective was manifested in the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which, in the opinion of many experts and certainly based on the sensibilities of the Arab minority and many others in the liberal Jewish population in Israel, lends legal and normative-constitutional legitimacy to existing discrimination against Arabs, and reifies their status as second-class citizens in a regime of ethnic-Jewish superiority.

In retrospect, it transpires that Netanyahu’s exhibitions of unbridled incitement were only a promo to the present election campaign, whose mantra that the Arabs are second-class citizens at best, and a fifth column in a less desirable case, became the gist of the Likud election propaganda. In this spirit, “Tibi or Bibi,” and  “Lapid and Gantz will establish an opposition bloc with the Arabs” became the leading slogans of the Likud campaign. And if that were not enough, Netanyahu claimed during a speech broadcast live on all of the news channels that “Lapid and Gantz are relying on the Arab parties that are acting to eliminate Israel.”

De-legitimization of the Arab Parties        

The incitement against the Arabs is not only an efficient political tool for mobilizing votes from the right, since it is also based on a deeper understanding, according to which a regime change ousting Netanyahu is impossible without the votes from the Arab population being added to what is known in Israel as the centrist-left bloc (including Meretz, Labor and the Blue and White political alliance). It is already clear to all that Netanyahu is motivated by the understanding that it was the Arab vote for Ehud Barak of the left in the 1999 elections that led to his defeat. He also well understands that the left-wing government led by Yitzhak Rabin between 1992-1995 ruled through the support of the five Arab MKs from the Hadash and Arab Democratic Party (Mad’a). In short, successful de-legitimization of the Arabs as partners in the ruling coalition or as bearing the right to influence the ruling coalition, is tantamount to a continuation of the right-wing Netanyahu government, which has no rival from the right. Moreover, there are growing signs that Netanyahu is relating to the government as a refuge from the law, hence incitement and political de-legitimization of Arabs becomes a guarantee of his personal and legal – and not just political – survival.

However, reducing the phenomenon to Netanyahu’s politics of intimidation, divisiveness and incitement misses a bigger picture. Among the Jewish majority, there is deep and widespread sentiment that the Arab citizens are not legitimate partners to the government, and certainly not worthy of possessing, even as co-pilots or support staff, the keys to the state. This sentiment can even be found among significant portions of the liberal Jewish population which, from their perspective, ‘equality for Arabs, the right to vote and be elected – Yes!’; ‘partnership, the right to influence the country and more regarding peace, war and security – No!’.  Consciously or not, this sentiment arises from a view that the Jewishness of the state needs to take expression in exclusive Jewish sovereignty, or, at least, Jewish dominance. It also arises from a deeply seated perspective that vis-à-vis the Arab citizens, a policy of “respect them and suspect them” must be applied, in light of the fact that a vast majority of them identify with the Palestinian people and/or the Arab space and nation. This is evidenced in the failure of the Blue and White party, which is vying for the government, to at any stage reject the blatant, restrained or latent racism of the campaign slogan “Bibi or Tibi.” The captains of the party are complacent with denying their intention of collaborating with the Arabs, which corroborates and indirectly reinforces and bolsters these perspectives.

Lately, the question of the legitimacy of the Arab population made headlines following a post by the well-known entertainment host and model Rotem Sela. Regarding a television interview with the Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev, in which the minister rudely and crudely echoed the slogan “Tibi or Bibi,” Sela questioned how it was that the interviewer, Rina Matzliach, had not deemed it necessary to explain to the minister that the Arabs are equal citizens, and that Israel is a state of all its citizens. This post ignited a vigorous public storm, to which Netanyahu chimed in, correcting Sela in a reprimanding tone to remind her that:

“Israel is not a nation of all its citizens. According to the Basic Law: Nation-State that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people – and theirs only. As you wrote, there is no problem with Israel’s Arab citizens – they have equal rights like all of us, and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government.”

And lest there is any lingering doubt that in Netanyahu’s eyes the Arab public is not entitled to influence and certainly not to be part of the government and that it is a fifth column, Netanyahu continued, claiming in the same post that:

“The Likud only sought to fine-tune the key question in these elections: Either a strong right-wing government under my leadership or a left-wing government under Yair Lapid and Gantz with the support of the Arab parties. Lapid and Gantz have no other way of establishing a government, and such a government will undermine the security of the state and the citizens.”

The Question of the Blocking Majority

Netanyahu understands well that both Benny Gantz and the Arabs are not interested in forming a joint coalition.  In the political tradition of the Arab parties, being part of the government is entirely unacceptable, since it signifies bearing collective and ethical responsibility for government policy, and in particular, for the continuous occupation of their people and the severe and daily injustices it incurs. This notwithstanding, in contrast to the position of the parties, opinion polls from recent years show consistently that there is a majority among the Arab population which does support entering the coalition. The Arabs, it turns out, long to exert an influence and to upgrade their political status; perhaps this is what frightens Netanyahu more than anything. On the other hand, in the view of Benny Gantz and almost the entire Jewish political spectrum in Israel with the exception of Meretz, the legitimacy of the Israeli citizen stems mainly from his or her ethnic origin (with regard to all the Jews), or from active contribution to the security arms (of which the Druze Arabs are a clear case). That is not to say that the Israeli citizenship of the Arabs is devoid of content, since it affords significant rights; to understand this, it is sufficient merely to compare to the situation of West Bank Palestinians with that of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But it does say that in Israel, Israeli citizenship is enough only to demand equality and receive equality limited to individual rights, and very partial cultural and collective rights. Netanyahu, then, is making manipulative, explicit, extremist and dangerous use of sentiment and deep, general views that exist among most of the Jewish public and that constitute part of a formative national narrative. The Arab minority, for its part, has already for years been claiming consistently that these circles of legitimization are generated, maintained and replicated by the formal-legal and constitutional identity of the state as a Jewish and democratic, and that this structural exclusion has of late intensified even more with the legislation of the Nation-State Law.

As stated, the question of Arabs joining the government is not immediate, rendering the only relevant question: Will the Arabs and the centrist-left parties (Meretz, Labor and Blue and White) compromise with a “thinner” partnership of the “blocking majority” type. This means a scenario in which the Arabs advise the president, after the elections, to choose the Blue and White party headed by Gantz to form a coalition in order to deny the Likud and Netanyahu the support of the 61 MKs necessary for being appointed by the president to form a coalition. In so doing, they will give Gantz the mandate for establishing a government of which the Arabs will not be a part. In the public political discourse, it is often remarked that the Arab parties were a blocking majority during the second Rabin government, though that case was significantly different from today, since the Rabin government, after the exit of the Shas party in September 1993, became a minority government (of 56 MKs), able to rule by virtue of the security net of five Arab MKs who promised it a majority of 61 hands that would vote in the Knesset in support of its initiatives. At that point, then, the partnership was much more significant than the scenario of a recommendation for Gantz so that he could, as stated, form a government that the Arabs do not want and are not invited to participate in or even act as its external security net.

The Arab parties are divided among themselves regarding the question of the blocking majority. The Hadash and Ra’am list is open to the idea under certain conditions, although it is clear that they fear that stating this out loud could deliver an electoral blow to Gantz and his party. Lately, Ayman Odeh of the Hadash party – the outgoing chairman of the Joint List (with Ahmad Tibi) of the Hadash and Ta’al lists, stated:

“I sense the opportunity for a regime change, and therefore, we will see to it that our voter turnout will be high, so that we will be able to replace the right-wing government. We are a minority that is interested in a regime change. To be honest, there is no doubt that we have more of an interest than the majority group in bringing down the right-wing government, and therefore, I have no doubt that we will descend in droves onto the buses in order to replace the right-wing government.”

In contrast to Hadash and Ta’al, Balad almost completely rejects this possibility. From its standpoint, there is no real difference between Gantz and Netanyahu, and both are unfitting for a recommendation to the president. However, it is entirely uncertain that this will be the position of Balad if and when the blocs are entirely equal and the Arab voice is truly decisive. Past declarations by leaders of Ra’am, Balad’s present partner, in favor of a blocking majority, reinforce this speculation.

Apathy and the Widespread Call for a Boycott

It is not possible to provide an overview of the elections in the eyes of the Arab public in Israel without stating and emphasizing the widespread apathy and frustration among this population. Although the campaigns that encourage the Arab public to boycott the elections claiming exploitation of Arab participation as a fig leaf to conceal the state’s racist character are not new, it appears that in the current elections, this campaign is broader and, as far as it seems, also more effective. The fact that a considerable portion of the Arab public does not believe in its ability to influence their lives through Israeli politics enables these messages to percolate inwards. The lack of faith that there is a real difference between right and left or center and left also leads increasing numbers of Arab citizens to believe that there is no working partner and therefore, no point in voting. Above all else, the disintegration of the Joint List and its modest achievements during its only term reinforce the general sentiment among the Arabs, turning the scenario of a very low voter turnout among this group into a very real one.

Despite the above, this election period is likely to end with a historical political irony. Those who now serve as Netanyahu’s punching bag and are privileged to hear his almost daily reference to them as a fifth column and second-class citizens, are likely, on the day after the elections, if the blocs are equal in size, to bring down the Netanyahu-led right. Of course, this does not only depend on the Arabs, but if this population becomes cognizant of its strength and potential influence and votes en masse, there is a decent chance that we will have the fortune of seeing a marginalized, bullied and abused population become overnight one of the key players in Israel and even in the entire region.