Muhammad Khlaile is a doctoral student at the School of Political Science at Haifa University and a lecturer in the Department of Civics at Oranim College of Education.
The last three electoral cycles in the last year and a half – for the 21st, 22nd and 23rd Knessets – offer many insights into the changes that have occurred in Palestinian Arab society in Israel in the last two decades. They also offer insights about future options for building a new political camp that will include Arabs and Jews and whose purpose is to change the prevailing political culture in Israel, Israel’s policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the status of the Arab minority in the country. The Joint List was formed in January 2015. The leaders of the parties that comprise it boasted what they called a historical achievement, which they claim expresses their response to the aspirations of the Arab public, which had expressed its yearning for a united front for many years. There are also those who see the establishment of the Joint List as an inescapable result of the raising of the election threshold, which the leaders of the parties representing the Arab public were afraid they would not meet and consequently lose their parliamentary representation. Although these two explanations cannot be ignored, I would like to argue that creating the Joint List is mainly a response to a paradigmatic rift in Arab national politics as represented by Balad. That rift, which I will discuss in detail, both generates and reflects centralization processes that have been occurring in the Arab public since 2010 as a result of many changes, primarily the outbreak of the Arab Spring.
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 more civic, social, integration discourse. The radical discourse dominated the Arab political system after the October 2000 events and peaked with the publication of the “Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” documents in 2006. It was expressed by a significant drop in the voting rate for the Knesset, campaigns to boycott the elections, and a rise in the number of civil society organizations. Its dominance led wide segments of the Arab political system to view parliamentary representation as a controversial issue, and there were those who questioned its effectiveness. One of the expressions of that trend could be seen as early as 2001, ahead of the elections for prime minister between the Zionist left candidate Ehud Barak and the right-wing candidate Ariel Sharon. Only 18% of the eligible Arab voters exercised their right to vote. This smoothed the right-wing candidate’s path to the Prime Minister’s Office more than ever. Joint Arab-Jewish civil initiatives became irrelevant and were even considered illegitimate and contrary to the spirit of the time, which emphasized the inner strength of the minority and the building of its autonomous political institutions. Furthermore, the radical discourse blurred the boundaries between the different streams of the Zionist movement and viewed it as all of a piece, with no difference between left, center and right; Tamar Sandberg was not perceived as different from Yael German, Moshe Kachlon or Bezalel Smotrich.
In contrast, the integration discourse intensified with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, and reached its peak in the last year led by Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List. It expresses the centralization processes the Arab political system and the Arab community in general are undergoing, and seeks to improve the status of the Arab population through recognition of its political legitimacy as well as improving its socioeconomic status and solving the problems that concern the Arab public. The integration discourse distinguishes between the different streams of the Zionist movement and tries to build bridges and cooperation with the streams that are in the center and the left in order to topple the right-wing government, which does not recognize the political legitimacy of the Arab public and leads racist, offensive and anti-democratic legislation against the Arabs. It accepts part of the existing political reality and raises essential demands to change it; it demands collective rights while at the same time accepting in principle the framework of Israeli citizenship and demands to change it from an exclusive framework based on ethnic-national affiliation to a liberal and inclusive civic framework.
The centralization process in Arab politics comes into yet sharper relief on the background of Odeh’s statements and his (conditional) desire to be part of the coalition, recommendation of Benny Ganz for prime minister, and Odeh’s call to build a democratic camp with elements of the Jewish sector on the basis of a platform including three main points: resolution of the conflict and opposition to unilateral measures, full equality between Arabs and Jews, and social justice – a platform that any Israeli citizen who defines themselves left of the “right” can agree with to a certain degree.
This process is also reflected by public opinion surveys, which show that most of the Arab population supported the recommendation of Benny Ganz, supports joining the government, and demands that the Arab legislators focus on civil issues more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a survey conducted as part of the campaign to get out the Arab vote before the elections for the 22nd Knesset, Arab citizens were asked to express their position about the Joint List’s recommending Benny Ganz, the center-left candidate, for prime minister. Most of the Arab population agreed with the recommendation and even supported it (56% versus 8% who opposed). In the same survey respondents were asked what was more important to them: solving the Palestinian problem or improving their socioeconomic status. 62% of respondents said improving their socioeconomic status, compared to 37% who preferred action to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same survey found that most of the Arab public support Odeh’s statements (52% support, 17% moderately support, and 31% do not support). The survey clearly reflected the changes occurring in Arab politics.
Moreover, the centralization was expressed by the Joint List’s two recommendations of Benny Ganz for prime minister, despite his general feebleness, his cold attitude towards the leadership of the Arab public, and his ignoring the Arab population’s priorities. This indicates that the Arabs chose to enter the field; instead of sitting on the bleachers or on the bench and waiting for an opportunity to be given to them by the coach, they chose to be active players in order to advance an alternative political agenda to the status quo. Thus, the majority of the population chose a strategy leading to fully equal rights between Arabs and Jews – but as part of Israeli citizenship, and chose partners who do not necessarily agree on the same national narrative, and even ones whose positions conflict with some of their own basic assumptions.
The question is whether these changes and transformations and centralization process in Arab politics might serve as fertile ground for cooperation between Arabs and Jews. Can such a paradigmatic change offer a Jewish-Arab political framework that could offer an alternative to the government? And can such a camp fundamentally change Israel and turn it from an exclusive and excluding Jewish state into an inclusive civil state?