Balancing Act in Israel – Recognizing Arabs as Partners in Democracy

Mohammad Darawshe is Director of Planning, Equality and Shared Society at Givat Haviva Educational Center and a Member of The Three-sector Roundtable as well as the Strategic Planning Team Authority for Economic Development of Arab Sector at the Israeli Prime Minister's office.  


We lost the elections, and feel doomed to another four-year term of a right-wing government in Israel. The Netanyahu governments since 2009 have been extremely challenging for Arab citizens in Israel, especially in the constitutional-legal arena. Less than a year ago, the government passed the so-called “nation-state law,” which defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people, thus eliminating the inclusive definition of the state as a one for all of its citizens. This renders moot the principle of equality that appears in the country’s declaration of independence.

In the first weeks after the election, we Arabs of Israel felt sad, scared, and confused. But soon we gathered together our thoughts and adjusted our feelings, and began to look forward again. But first we have to analyze why we lost, yet again.

One of the election’s most interesting results was the record-low turnout of Arab citizens. 

Arab citizens are 16% of Israel’s voters and can potentially send as many as 20 representatives to the Israeli parliament. Yet, only 49% of them actually voted, thus sending only ten Arab members from Arab political parties, and contributing another four seats with their votes to non-Arab political parties. If the turnout had matched the national rate of 67%, four additional seats could have been guaranteed to the center-left political block. The result would have created the makings of a different political scene in Israel today.

There were a number of reasons for this low turnout. The main reason was Arabs’ loss of interest in participating in the Israeli political scene after the passing of the nation-state law. The law defines Israel as an exclusive state for Jews, completely ignoring the minority rights of Arab citizens. It also downgraded the status of Arabic language from an official language to one of “special status,” which was seen as an insult to the cultural identity of 1.5 million indigenous citizens. The Israeli right’s exclusion of the Arab community was met by a walk out of sorts. If the game is not fair, the Arabs were saying, then we will not take part in it. We won’t be decoration for this kind of democracy.

A second reason was dissatisfaction with the performance of the Arab political parties over the last four years. In 2015, the four active Arab political parties joined forces on one joint list, and were rewarded by increasing the turnout from 56% in 2013 to 64%, increasing their collective power from eleven seats to 13 seats in the Knesset. The four parties, however, returned to in-fighting among themselves and did not reflect unity in practice; indeed, their unity turned out to be an electoral strategy alone. Even this, though, did not hold: the joint list split into two lists just weeks before the elections, creating disappointment and distrust among their supporters who punished them by boycotting the elections. In addition, there was disappointment over the ineffectiveness of the Arab members of the Knesset working as opposition to the right-wing government. The government was not cooperative in the least and did not allow them to accomplish anything to their credit.

The third reason was that the center-left candidate, Benny Gantz, did not know how to talk to the Arab citizens, who constitute almost a third of center-left voters. He made a few unfortunate statements, such as bragging that when he was the chief of staff of the Israeli military he caused massive destruction in Gaza by bombing it back to the Stone Age. He also vowed that if elected he would only invite Jewish parties to join his coalition. He may have made these statements to attract soft-right Israeli voters, but in doing so many Arab voters angrily abandoned the center-left. They refused to replace Netanyahu with someone who speaks publicly with such militaristic rhetoric and delegitimizes Arab partnership in the government. They didn’t want to be just a pool of voters for the center-left, but rather aspired for more structural involvement in decision making.

The next few months will be a true test in Jewish-Arab relations.

First, it will test the Arab parties that need to re-build their own capacity, get organized on the ground, and reconnect with their voters. Otherwise, they will lose their place to new forces that will challenge them. Second, the center-left Blue and White party needs to iron out its differences with the Arab community and realize that it can never come to office unless it considers Arab voters as part of their potential coalition. The third challenge is of national scope. The government needs to find the right language to speak to Arab citizens. And if it wants to maintain the democratic nature of the state, it needs to either amend the nation-state law, pass a new equality law, or recognize the Arab citizens as a national minority, which should qualify for protection of its unique national and cultural identity.

This will prove a balancing act that will determine the democratic identity of Israel.

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