From the editors

Mikhael Manekin and Ameer Fakhouri

Elections in democratic systems are like volcanic eruptions: they shape political streams and changes as well as reflecting them. Three election cycles in 2019-2020, and especially the last two rounds, shaped and reflected, among other things, the rise of the “Arab option” in the eyes of parts of the Jewish Zionist political scene; namely, the attempt to thaw out the impermeable Arab bloc and turn it into an obstructive bloc as part of an extra-governmental coalition, or at least a significant and influential bloc in Israeli parliamentary politics.

Of course, that option was not realized, and within the spectrum whose opposite poles are an obstructive bloc and an impermeable bloc, Arab politics seem to have remained closer to the latter. However, essential changes are brimming under the surface which cannot be reflected by the present point in time.

Based on a review and analysis of the political reality, we believe the rise of the Arab option expresses deep undercurrents that began or were accelerated by internal and external political, legal and social changes on the question of Israeli citizenship. The main elements of those currents are the rise of bipartisan politics in Israel, the increasing awareness of partnership in Arab politics, and the passing of the Nation Law.

The Netanyahu era is characterized by the development of a bipartisan politics comprised of a right-wing bloc and a bloc located to its left, which also includes the Arab parties. The Jewish parties from the bloc opposite the right were forced by necessity to thaw out the Arab option in order to outweigh the right-wing bloc. At the same time, awareness increased among parts of it that partnership with the Arab parties is the appropriate and obvious response to the anchoring of Jewish supremacy in the Nation Law. We propose that that awareness arose from an increasing understanding among those players that the constitutional formulation “Jewish and democratic,” which they accept, does not bar in principle, and certainly not absolutely, binational partnership in governmental centers of power.

Meanwhile, the raising of the election threshold gave rise to the Joint List, which in turn strengthened the Arab population’s awareness of political partnership. This process makes it difficult to return to the politics of before the election threshold was raised, as evidenced by the low voter turnout among the Arab population (49.5%) in the first 2019 elections, when the list broke into two separate lists. The growing Arab middle class also contributed to the rise and growth of the awareness of partnership. In addition, the unbridled and unprecedented incitement against Arab politics and Arab citizens by the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu actually bolstered the Arab parties’ sense of power and responsibility. This was expressed by a desire to have an impact on Israeli politics, and especially the political slogan “we can’t do it alone and they can’t do it without us,” often identified with Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh.

The rise of the Arab option was also influenced by external processes. The vicissitudes of the “Arab Spring” exposed the Arab citizens of Israel to the political, institutional and social weakness and frailty of the different national groups in the Arab world, and generated a process of movement of Arab politics in Israel from the radical pole to the reformist pole, which emphasizes a definitional change from within. Even though this source of influence is not necessarily conscious or discussed in the Arab public discourse, and certainly not in the public discourse of the Palestinian Israeli political elite, its importance cannot be ignored.

It is interesting to note that the Jewish left has also looked “outward” in recent years and undergone internal and identity changes following changes in the world and in Israel. The Israeli left’s history discourse, in its class, ethnic and national contexts, which is also influenced by the discourse taking place in the world, opened the horizon for rethinking alliances and challenging the camp’s sectorial boundaries. The fact that the organized Zionist left is at an electoral and institutional low point reinforces the conditions that allow openness to new directions and ideas.

Out of an understanding of the processes described above, in 2020 a research group called Shared Nationalism convened in the Israel in the Middle East research cluster at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, in cooperation with the Alliance and the School for Peace (SFP) at Neve Shalom – Wahat al-Salam. The purpose of the group is to develop a shared political syntax between the two nationalities living in Israel and sharing the same time, space, citizenship, and daily experiences. When we say “syntax,” we mean language, imagination, frame of reasoning, ethical justification, and in general – intellectual approaches from different worlds of thought and meaning, alongside possible political connections, uses and implications. We are seeking to formulate tools and contents that will help decipher, interpret and reinterpret the past, the present and the future. That syntax can serve as a basis for a “binational interventional politics,” that will allow Palestinian-Arab politics, or parts thereof, more room in which to maneuver in Jewish-Zionist politics, while offering the latter (or parts thereof) opportunities for a productive political and national discussion with Arab-Palestinian politics.

The research group is rooted primarily in basic values of justice, equality, prosperity, welfare, security, and self-realization, and it develops its ideas in reference to five axes or dimensions: the historic dimension, the structural dimension, the narrative dimension, the intergroup relations dimension, and the intragroup relations dimension. The historic dimension is concerned with the conditions of the historic encounter between the two national groups, and especially the historic episode of the 1948 war, which, with the defeat of the Palestinian side, led to a series of wrongs including dispossession, expulsion, humiliation, prevention of political independence, and the creation of refugeehood. In this dimension we refer to wrongful birth not only as an analytical framework but also in order to examine the moral, political and legal connections between the birth and the wrong, or between the wrong and the birth, for the purpose of just reparation. The structure dimension is concerned with the question of the constitutional-legal arrangements that can bring about agreed national, social, cultural and political regulation of the relationship between the two groups. In others words, we propose to redesign the infant’s facial features. Conversely, the narrative dimension is mainly about developing national and binational constitutional ethoses, which precede the structural dimension and can constitute it, justify it, and help preserve it.

These three dimensions are guided by the binational dimension, which presumes ontologically, politically, normatively, and morally, the existence of two nations entitled to preserve their identity. Therefore, the discussion is not about removing the symbolic boundaries between the two nations but about the height of those boundaries, their thickness, and especially their meaning. And finally, the intragroup dimension expresses recognition of intragroup, intranational variance, especially in order to avoid uniformity, identity politics, and abstraction of the collective cultural reality. It also allows an examination of the array of connections between subgroups within each national side and the connections of subgroups from either side with the other national group.

This issue is an initial collection of texts, initial notes for research and action, by members of the group. Naturally, we were not able to refer to all of those dimensions or expound on them, because we are in the early stages of activity. However, this collection of short articles presents interesting directions of thought for the group’s future activity.

Mikhael Manekin explores the negative connotations of a central convention in the concept of Zionist Jewish nationality: the need for a Jewish majority for security reasons. One of the prevailing justifications in Jewish-Israeli discourse for the need to guarantee physical existential security is the sad history of persecution Jews suffered from others. Just as frequently, that need is also justified by reference to the Arabs, including the Palestinian citizens of Israel, as an eternal potential enemy. Therefore, the demand for a Jewish majority for security reasons contains essentialist presumptions about the nature of the relations between the two groups. Thus, there is a contradiction between the negative contents of the need for a majority and the declared desire among parts of the Jewish public for peace between the two nations.

Ameer Fakhouri offers a view that focuses on the structure of reality generated by the constitutional structure of “Jewish and democratic,” instead of focusing on the reality of the structure. The reality of the structure can be learned from a competent expert’s interpretation of the constitutional text, whereas the structure of reality is construed from the interpretation of the subject who is not an expert on the constitutional text, and who constitutes meaning within the text, in a complex and brachiated causal mechanism of sociopolitical processes. According to Fakhouri, when you focus on the structure of reality rather than on the reality of the structure, the question of whether the Jewishness of the state actually blocks material civil equality – a question formulated, exclusively or at least predominantly, as a legal, theoretical or ideological question – becomes a sociopolitical, empirical and phenomenological question that examines the practice of 70 years of Israeliness, which arises from millions of different choices by Jewish Israeli citizens (as well as by Arab citizens, although secondarily) operating within the structure and under its influence over time.

Gabriel Abensour argues that the State of Israel, in its current legal structure and the political discourse it promotes, is reshaping Jewish identity in a way that devoids it of components that were essential to it for generations. This poses a threat not only to the non-Jewish citizens of Israel but also to the Jewish ones, as far as the continued existence of traditional Jewish identity. According to Abensour, it is a Judaism without content which is its own reason, means and goal all at once. Thus, the political use of the concept of “Jewish” in Israel is always circular: the country is Jewish, therefore it must strengthen its Jewish identity, so that that identity strengthen its definition as Jewish. As a result, in the existing Israeli law, “Judaism” is not a justification for the legitimate use of force by the state, but is the force itself. Abensour argues that it is a world in which Judaism is still at the center, but its function has reversed: instead of a system of divine laws that posed an alternative to the existing political order, Judaism became a narrow nationalism that strengthens the legal structure of the state, which in practice is a completely secularized religious power structure.

In the second part of the article Abensour argues that promoting Jewish-Arab partnership can play an important role in neutralizing the Israeli power structure, for the benefit of both groups. Most of the models of Jewish-Arab partnership proposed today are based on a liberal idea that demands that both groups that fought (and still fight) for their national independence “grow up” and merge in a civil framework. Abensour thinks these models are problematic because in the existing political and social circumstances in Israel the goal is not, and cannot be, a new civil identity; the goal must be liberation of both groups from the categorization and identity reduction that were imposed on them. Jewish-Arab partnership must therefore allow each one of the groups continuity from its past to its future, in order to inject meaning into the present.

Hillel Ben-Sasson identifies a dominant paradigm in Jewish-Arab relations within Israeli citizenship, according to which between Zionism and Palestinian national identity there is a zero-sum game (see also article by Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya in this issue). According to that paradigm, the Palestinian-Arab side is asked to give up the nakba narrative and accept Jewish hegemony, whereas the Zionist-Jewish side must give up the Jewish dimension in the constitutional identity of the state and agree to a binational consociationalism.

Out of the assumption that a national bridging narrative between the two groups is doomed to failure, and in order to promote partnership and civil equality, Ben-Sasson proposes an alternative paradigm focusing on what he calls “second-order giving,” as opposed to the “foundational concession” involved in the existing paradigm. According to his proposal, the Jewish majority in Israel must give up its exclusive hold on governmental power, to allow an equal distribution of material state resources on a national basis. That concession does not include conceding the principle of Jewish majority (see Mikhael Manekin’s article in this issue) and practical expressions of it that do not constitute discrimination. On the other hand, the Arab side is required to strengthen its political agency within Israeli politics at the expense of its sense of victimhood. This alternative intellectual paradigm can serve as an organizing political idea, Ben-Sasson concludes.

Nasreen Hadad Haj-Yahya criticizes the unwritten tradeoff between the state and the Arab citizens, according to which the state allocates resources to improve individual rights, economic development, and civil equality among the Arab community, and in exchange it must give up its Palestinian identity and accept an Israeli identity instead. Hadad Haj-Yahya argues that economic development or economic prosperity cannot replace narrative integration or state containment of the Palestinian-Arab national narrative. That tradeoff, she adds, is at the basis of Government Decision No. 922 as well as the Nation Law, and the “Deal of the Century” put forth by the Trump administration; but the lack of narrative integration leads to alienation that cannot allow economic prosperity, or which cannot be compensated for with such prosperity.

Out of an analysis of the structure of the opportunities and constraints available to the Arab citizens, and in order to promote equality and partnership between the two nations within Israeli citizenship, Samer Sweid proposes demands and concessions both on the narrative level and the practical-material level, which would be expressed in both sides’ interests. According to his proposal, the sovereign Jewish side would recognize the nakba and take responsibility for its restitution, whereas the Palestinian-Arab side would recognize or ratify its recognition of the Jews’ right to self-determination. According to Sweid, the realization of such a proposal can be “a junction from which the historical development runs on a new course,” as occurred in the second Rabin government of 1992-1995, or conversely, as occurred when Ganz rejected the hand stretched out to him by parliamentary Arab politics in the elections for the 23rd Knesset. That proposal can be realized by promoting a conversation, in the same way that the influence conversation was promoted intensively in the three election cycles in the years 2019-2020, creating a favorable reality for establishing partnership.

The article by Meirav Jones and Lihi Ben Shitrit is about the sovereignty discourse in Israel today and the political meanings of the concept of “sovereignty” in the Jewish public discourse in Israel. The writers argue that the Israeli right has managed to register new contents into the concept of sovereignty, so that instead of being understood as a sovereignty whose source is alliance and mutual consent, it is usually understood by the Israeli public as an imagined domination applied from above, in such a way that subjugates or imposes control over another people or a foreign territory. The writers show how different political movements and opinion leaders promoted the process of the aforesaid change of meaning.

Rula Hardal focuses on the influence discourse promoted by the Joint List in the elections for the 22nd and 23rd Knessets. This discourse had two layers. One was the proposition that more delegates representing the Arab public needed to be added in order to become a more influential force in Israeli politics, and especially to defeat the right led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The other was the promotion of an Israeli civic identity and of civil rights in the narrow sense, namely receiving services and the allocation of resources, at the expense of personal and collective national identity. Hardal argues that the failure to prevent Netanyahu from returning to power proved that the influence discourse was nothing more than an illusion.

Tom Mehager believes that in order to build an alternative camp to Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Ganz’s “emergency coalition,” a historic reparation is needed, both towards the Palestinian people and towards the Mizrahi Jewish public. To achieve that, the decolonization within the 1948 borders needs to be understood as a critical component or even a necessary condition for ending the 1967 occupation. In the Palestinian context, practices of dispossession and ethnic cleansing need to be addressed in areas such as immigration and settlement, and in the Mizrahi connection a discussion is required on different forms of exclusion, subjugation, and racial crimes. According to Mehager, the last decades show that attempts to reach conciliation and peace along with normalization (or even glorification) of the system of government in Israel and Zionist history are doomed to failure, and therefore they contribute to the strengthening of the Israeli right.

Mohammed Khlaile argues that the dominant political discourse in Arab politics changed from a radical discourse led by the Northern Faction of the Islamic Movement, elements of Balad, and remnants of the Abnaa el-Balad movement, to a social and civic discourse of integration. According to this thesis, the radical discourse was amplified after the October 2000 events and culminated with the publication of “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” documents in 2006-2007. It was also expressed by low voter turnout, affected by the decline in trust in the effectiveness of parliamentary political representation, the strengthening of civil society, the emphasis on the importance of institutions of extra-parliamentary representation, and the lack of discrimination between different nuances within Zionist Jewish politics.

However, the integration discourse strengthened following the “Arab Spring” events and culminated in 2019, in the era of the Joint List led by Ayman Odeh. Khlaile examines public opinion surveys and argues that the integration discourse was expressed in the desire to advance the status of the Arab population, mainly through recognition of its political legitimacy, as well as through improvement of its socioeconomic status. He goes on to argue that this discourse distinguishes between streams in the Zionist movement and tries to build bridges in cooperation with the centrist and leftist streams in order to topple the right. The integration discourse demands collective rights, accepts in principle the framework of Israeli citizenship, and demands turning it from an excluding framework based on ethno-national affiliation into an inclusive liberal civic framework. According to Khlaile, this phenomenon might reflect the centralizing of the Arab electorate.

Mikhael Manekin, Ameer Fakhouri