Fifteen of Israel’s 120 members of Knesset represent the Joint List, a coalition of four Arab political parties – liberals, Islamists, progressives and ultra-nationalists – that came together to make sure that the law passed in 2014 raising the electoral threshold from 2 per cent to 3.25 per cent wouldn’t disenfranchise them.
A major impetus for passing the law was probably to exclude as many Arabs as possible from the Israeli legislature. The move misfired. Today, there are more of them than ever before.
The Joint List had supported Benny Gantz, the leader of the now broken-up Blue and White party, when he hoped to become the next prime minister of Israel. After the election on March 2, he seemed to be able to muster 61 members of Knesset and was, therefore, given the mandate by Israel’s president to form the next government. The Joint List wouldn’t be part of it, but it expected measures to benefit Israel’s Arab citizens, whom previous governments are said to have neglected.
For a few days, I was among those who thought that Ron Kampeas’ observation in the Times of Israel – that “an Arab voice at the national table has taken a leap from unimaginable to inevitable” – was correct. Unfortunately, Gantz taking a section of Blue and White into the coalition of right-wingers supporting Benjamin Netanyahu has rendered this assessment irrelevant.
Netanyahu, who is likely to remain the prime minister in the foreseeable future, insists that the Joint List lacks legitimacy because its Knesset members oppose the Jewish state and some of them are accused of supporting terrorists.
Responsible and respected public figures in Israel were understandably outraged by the prime minister’s stance. Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, wrote in Haaretz that he who seeks to ignore the Joint List also invalidates those who voted for them – that is, Israel’s Arab citizens, almost 21 per cent of the country’s population.
Arabs are productive and, in some cases, prominent members of Israeli society. Their role in the country’s health service is particularly notable. Prof. Rafi Walden, the deputy director of Tel Aviv’s Sheba Medical Center, has put it well: “It is hard to comprehend that a patient can put his life in the hands of a senior cardiac surgeon who is Arab, while the prime minister overwhelmingly defines the Arab citizens of Israel as terrorists.”
At this time of the coronavirus pandemic, Walden’s words are particularly poignant: “The system would collapse without the crucial contribution of the Arab citizens as medical staff.” Writing in The New Yorker, Prof. Bernard Avishai reported that “17 per cent of Israel’s physicians, 24 per cent of its nurses and nearly half its pharmacists are Arabs.”
An item on Facebook put it succinctly: “I am an Arab doctor. I voted for the Joint List. I am not a terrorist. I keep working to save lives of Jews and Arabs equally. Shared fate, shared government.”
Wishing to share the fate of Israel’s Jewish citizens, Arabs were therefore outraged by a proposal in U.S. President Donald Trump’s so-called peace plan – an idea long advocated by reactionary Jews in Israel – that a region in the north of the country, largely populated by Arabs, be made part of the Palestinian state. Israel’s Arabs justifiably see themselves as citizens and wish to remain so, even if many may oppose Zionism.
The coronavirus crisis has also brought to light the gap in available medical and other welfare services between the Arab and Jewish population in Israel. Had Gantz formed a government with the support of the Joint List, that gap would no doubt have been narrowed. As things are now, however, Arabs will continue to be marginalized and the Joint List will remain as their foremost advocate.
But it won’t be alone. Soon after the announcement that Gantz wouldn’t form the next government, a statement reflecting the views of many Israelis affirmed solidarity with their fellow Arab citizens. Perhaps they’ll help to bring about what Gantz failed to do.