World / Politics

Galvanized Arab voters display their newfound influence in Israeli politics

Bloomberg

Israel’s long-marginalized Arab minority is throwing around its newfound weight.

The Joint List of Arab parties, significantly strengthened by Israel’s inconclusive Sept. 17 election, recommended Sunday that former military chief Benny Gantz form Israel’s next government. Its backing could nudge President Reuven Rivlin to tap Gantz instead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nationalist campaign preyed on anti-Arab sentiment.

That Israeli Arabs would recommend Gantz, whose Blue and White bloc counts three former generals and several staunch nationalists, is in itself remarkable. But recommending Gantz “will be the most significant step toward helping create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr. Netanyahu,” Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh said in a New York Times opinion piece.

“The Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel have chosen to reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his politics of fear and hate, the inequality and division he advanced for the past decade,” Odeh wrote.

“We have decided to demonstrate that Arab Palestinian citizens can no longer be rejected or ignored.”

Rivlin will anoint a prime minister-designate after meeting with parliamentary factions this week to gauge who has the most support.

To be sure, it is not clear Gantz will be able to line up enough lawmakers to form a coalition even if he has the most backing and is given a shot. The election, called after Netanyahu failed to form a government following the April 9 vote, gave neither man a clear path to marshalling the support of 61 of Knesset’s 120 legislators.

Odeh said the Joint List — the Knesset’s third-largest party with 13 lawmakers — would not sit in a government with Gantz because he refused to commit to the Arab bloc’s demands, including a resumption of direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, and the repeal of a controversial law enshrining Israel’s Jewish character in law.

Yet the Arab party’s willingness to enter the political process at this tipping point in Israeli politics lent it a rare strength — and gave voice to a yearning for greater influence among a community that makes up more than a fifth of Israel’s population.

Arab parties have never been in the Cabinet, both because Jewish lawmakers have not seen them as desirable partners and because they haven’t wanted to join a Zionist-led administration. Arab parties did, however, support Yitzhak Rabin’s minority government in the 1990s, and a few Arabs belonging to Jewish-led factions have served in junior positions.

While many are skeptical that Arabs would have much influence in a Jewish-led administration, a recent poll showed 76 percent of Arab voters want to see their representatives in government.

“It’s time they’ll be in and that we will all be together,” said Michel Abu Nassar, a Nazareth hotelier. “We shouldn’t be divided. We are all a single nation.”

Even without joining any Gantz-led government, the Joint List may find itself in a position of unprecedented influence. If Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White team up in a national unity government, the Arab bloc could find itself as Israel’s main opposition party and Odeh in the once-inconceivable position of receiving intelligence briefings and guarded by a security service involved in the interrogation and assassination of Palestinian militants.

Arab turnout, at 60 percent, surged 12 percentage points in the last election. Many were galvanized by Netanyahu’s Arab-bashing and failed effort to place cameras at polling stations, seen as an attempt to intimidate Arab voters.

“It was the beginning of the Israeli Arab Spring,” said pollster Mitchell Barak, referring to the pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East. “This could be Netanyahu’s greatest legacy in this election, he actually woke up the Arab community.”

Israel was founded as a Jewish homeland in 1948 on land the resident Arab population wanted for its own state. About 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled in fighting surrounding its creation. Arabs who stayed inside the borders of the new Israeli state were incorporated, some unwillingly, creating mutual suspicions that persist.

While Israel’s Arabs are citizens with equal rights on paper, they face bias in employment and housing, and their communities have received far less funding for schools, health care, transportation and infrastructure. Strains deepened last year over the law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, because it didn’t commit to full equality for all citizens codified elsewhere.

Arab voters have voiced their discontent with government policy by alternately boycotting elections or going to the polls. This time, participation won out as Netanyahu’s campaign tactics backfired.

“Netanyahu counted instinctively on the Arab community in Israel as essentially being a scared minority that, when faced with the sense of political threat, chose to keep their head down,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst with the Mitvim research institute.

“He didn’t count on them being more middle class, more educated, more empowered politically, and their reaction to that kind of political assault is not to keep their head down, but to become more active politically,” she said.