Restoring Hope to Israel’s Arab Citizens Offers Hope for All Israelis

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The expected drop in voter turnout among Arab citizens and their representation in Knesset, regardless of who wins or loses these elections, poses a real threat to the political system as a whole.

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The Knesset has voted to disperse and Israel is on its way to another election. The instability of the country’s political system and the struggles between and within its political blocs, make it exceedingly difficulty to form stable coalitions and governments, leading to paralysis and a lack of governance, even as Israeli society faces enormous challenges.

Polarization, fragmentation, and instability are not unique to the Zionist and Jewish parties, and also typify Arab politics in Israel. While Arab politics is certainly affected by changes and developments in the Israeli political system and by the structural inequality inherent in the State, Arab voters' behavior is influenced first and foremost by inter-party and intra-party politics in the Arab sector, and by the internal dynamics among the various players within Arab parties.

Ayman Odeh and the Joint List that he heads brought about a major shift. The formation of the Joint List in 2015 not only led to a major change in voter turnout and in voting patterns in Arab society, but also introduced a new form of political discourse. In addition to increased voter turnout after years of continuing decline (between 2001 and 2013), a drop in voter support for Zionist parties, and a rise in support for Arab parties, Odeh also gave rise to a significant change in the public agenda of Arabs in Israel. He proposed a more realistic approach to politics, but retained a critical stance toward the identity of the State and its fundamental principles. That is, while he focused on addressing the severe day-to-day difficulties with which the Arab public must grapple, he also (on a more strategic level) unapologetically demanded that the rules of the game be changed, along with the State's very character and identity. Thus, Odeh called not only for equality among all of Israel's citizens but to the end of the occupation as well. Still, in line with his more realistic approach, he sought out collaborations with left-wing Zionist parties, and even recommended to the President that the center-left candidate, Benny Gantz, be tasked with forming the government.

Gantz’s reservations on partnering with Odeh paved the way for another brand of politics, led by MK Mansour Abbas. Abbas is also a realist, but more pragmatic than Odeh and less openly critical of the state’s identity and character. Like Odeh, he wants to find solutions for the range of economic and social problems facing Arab citizens, but unlike him, his approach is not holistic. He is not interested in addressing questions of the State’s character, nor other important issues such as the occupation, because he believes that these are not problems on which Israel's Arab citizens can have an impact on. Furthermore, Abbas does not believe that the internal differences between factions of the Zionist movement are relevant to the politics that Arabs should pursue. For him, anyone displaying a willingness to cooperate with Arabs and a true desire to address the range of problems that concern Arab citizens is a potential partner. The change led by Abbas could be seen in the negotiations held with Binyamin Netanyahu, and of course in RA’AM’s membership in the most recent government coalition.

These approaches of Odeh and Abbas have attracted considerable criticism from the Arab public. Despite participation in the coalition and the new five-year government plan for Arab society, the perception of Abbas’s accomplishments as few, and the fact that he recognized Israel’s status as a Jewish state have generated considerable disappointment and anger. Large sections of the Arab public now feel that there is no real reason to vote. Voter turnout among Arab citizens in the upcoming elections is anticipated to be much lower than in the past, and according to various surveys and indicators from the field, will stand at around 35%.

There are additional factors underlying the anticipated dramatic fall in voter turnout, including the dissolution of the Joint List, the constant mudslinging among Arab politicians and parties, and the weakness of the Center-Left bloc in Israeli politics and its inability to provide a realistic alternative to the Right. Moreover, the overall crisis in the political system, its instability and lack of governance, prevents Arab parties and Arab members of Knesset from putting forward initiatives, plans, and bills that advance the interests of their voters. This situation exacerbates the lack of trust in politicians and parties, and contributes significantly to the continued notable decline in voter turnout.

The expected drop in voter turnout among Arab citizens (and accordingly, in their representation in Knesset), regardless of who wins or loses these elections, poses a real threat to the political system as a whole. Low voter turnout, combined with declarations that the Arab public has no place among the State’s decision-makers, are liable to create a fertile political climate for populist and racist legislation.

This will not only be a major step backward in the status of Arab citizens, but it may also deal a blow to Israel's Jewish citizens. To prevent such a nightmare scenario, Arab parties must realize that what happened in the past will not necessarily happen in the future, and that things may deteriorate very quickly. This realization, and its impact on the relations between parties representing the Arab public, needs to be reflected in, among other things, the upcoming election campaign and adopted by all parties.

Jewish politicians must also take steps to restore hope to Arab citizens. Arabs in Israel have an important electoral value and can have a significant impact on Israeli politics, regardless of whether or not they play an active role in government coalitions, as they would prefer. In light of the very real danger that Arab despair will lead to exceedingly low voter turnout, restoring their hope also offers real hope for all of Israel’s citizens.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.