The process of assembling a coalition government in Israel after a general election is fraught with surprises. One never knows which parties the premier will snub or invite into the cabinet. But one factor never changes.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launches the horse trading that will ultimately determine the composition of Israel’s next government, he will likely abide by tradition and refrain from asking any of the three Arab parties in the Knesset – Balad, Hadash and the United Arab List-Ta’al – to join forces with him, even though they hold a fairly respectable number of seats.
In the time-honoured exercise of coalition building in Israel, every seat generally counts. Yet not a single Israeli prime minister, from David Ben-Gurion to Ariel Sharon, has ever invited an Arab party to sit in government.
Arab politicians have been asked to support this or that policy or initiative. Yitzhak Rabin, for example, relied on Arab parties to pass the second Oslo peace agreement in 1995. But he stopped short of bringing Arab parties into his cabinet, thereby condemning them to perpetual opposition and raising concerns that the Muslim and Christian Arab minority in Israel, comprising 20 per cent of Israel’s population, would continue to be marginalized.
These ruminations spring to mind now that Israel’s Jan. 22 election has come and gone.
As the election campaign unfolded, one of the issues that bubbled to the surface was whether voter turnout in the Arab community would dip below the all-time low of 53 per cent, which was registered in the 2009 election.
Analysts claimed that a majority of Arabs, worn down and disillusioned by the perception that their grievances are not treated seriously by Jewish decision-makers, would boycott the election.
Haneen Zoabi, an Arab member of the Knesset, spoke to this scenario when she said, “Arabs have stopped believing in the democratic tools at their disposal.” What she meant was that Arab voters feel they cannot change the status quo.
Samah Salaime Egbariya, chair of Na’am, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the rights of Arab women in Israel, offered a similar explanation. Arabs, not having been fully integrated into Israeli society, might succumb to despair and stay at home on election day.
Fearing that a boycott would enhance Netanyahu’s chances of winning another term, the Arab League’s Palestine division issued an unprecedented appeal to Arabs urging them to vote.
Weighing in on this issue, Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Knesset member, told the New York Times: “In South Africa, people were killed struggling to have one person, one vote. In Israel, there is discrimination in every part of life – education, infrastructure, employment. In only one thing there is equal rights: the day of the election. One person, one vote. Those who are not participating are shooting their own legs.”
As it happened, Tibi’s fears were misplaced. Obliterating predictions that the Arab participation rate would sink to unprecedented depths, Arabs turned out in far greater numbers than anticipated, with 56 per cent deciding to vote. (By comparison, the Jewish voting rate was 70 per cent.)
In some Arab towns, particularly Kfar Kassem, Jaljulya and Sakhnin, the turnout was much higher than expected, topping the 70 per cent mark.
Compared to the 1999 election, when 75 per cent of Arab voters showed up to vote, the Arab turnout this year was unimpressive. In hand-wringing commentaries prior to the election, Arab parliamentarians and academics noted that Arabs might have won 20 seats and become the second largest bloc in the Knesset had a lot more voted.
As usual, most Arab voters cast their ballots for Arab parties, with the United Arab List-Ta’al, Hadash and Balad winning 11 Knesset seats, equalling their performance of four years ago.
Few Arabs supported Zionist parties, underscoring the scale of Arab alienation and disaffection from mainstream Israeli society. Nevertheless, a handful of Arabs ran on Jewish tickets. One such candidate, Ayoub Kara, a Druze from the town of Isfiya on Mount Carmel, represented the Likud–Beiteinu party list no less. In Netanyahu’s last government, he served as minister for development of the Negev and the Galilee.
Kara, however, is an anomaly.
Arab members of the Knesset, representing a blend of religious, nationalist and communist parties, tend to focus on external issues, principally the Arab-Israeli conflict. When they deal with domestic matters, they usually espouse radical views that are clearly at odds with Jewish Israeli norms.
Zoabi and Tibi illustrate this thesis.
Zoabi (Balad) was a passenger aboard the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break Israel’s naval siege of the Gaza Strip. When it was intercepted by Israeli commandos in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2010, she was detained. Consequently, the Central Elections Committee banned her from running in last month’s election. The order was overturned by the Supreme Court, and Zoabi regained her seat.
Zoabi got into trouble again in 2011 when she called for a third Palestinian uprising in the West Bank. In response, a Jewish MK recommended that she be stripped of her parliamentary immunity.
Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al), the Knesset’s deputy speaker, aroused the ire of some Jewish MKs last April when, on a trip to Ottawa, he called for a boycott of companies and products linked to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Both Palestinian nationalists, Zoabi and Tibi are animated, in part, by a well-founded belief that Israel’s 1.4 million Arab citizens, though equal under the law, are victims of widespread discrimination and racism.
Arabs in Israel are treated unfairly in the allocation of funds for health, education, housing and municipal services, as well as in employment opportunities. In the past, they have endured expropriation of their lands.
In a piece in New York City’s Jewish Week, Robert Cherry, a member of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Taskforce on Arab Citizens of Israel, addressed this issue head on. As he wrote, “Israel can claim to be a full democracy only so long as it treats its Arab minority fairly.”
Conditions in the Arab sector have improved markedly since the 1960s. Military rule in Arab towns and villages has been abolished. The infant death rate has dropped significantly. The proportion of Arab students graduating from high school and university has marginally increased. Arabs have been appointed ambassadors in Israel’s diplomatic corps, and an Arab justice sits on the Supreme Court. Israel is placing industrial parks in Arab municipalities in a bid to diversify their economies and create jobs.
But across the board, the gap between Jews and Arabs remains yawningly and depressingly wide. Even integrated and successful Arabs who profess loyalty to Israel cannot completely identify with the symbols and narratives of the Jewish state. According to the 2012 Israeli Democracy Index, 44 per cent of Arabs in Israel take pride in their Israeli citizenship, but 20 per cent are “not so proud” and 30 per cent are “not at all proud.”
These figures, to some extent at least, explain why only 56 per cent of Israeli Arabs bothered to vote in January’s election.