For the first time in its history, Israel could see an Arab lawmaker become opposition leader, an official post that comes with a security detail, Mossad briefings, audiences with all visiting foreign leaders, and rebuttals to the PM on the Knesset floor.
The Joint List, an umbrella group of Arab-led political parties, made history twice this election, emerging in recent days as a key player in Israeli politics after years of marginalization.
After two Arab parties won 10 seats in the April election, they united to form a list and took 13 seats in the elections held last week. The coalition is now the third largest in the Israeli parliament, tied for the highest Arab representation in history.
The performance of the Joint List was buoyed by increased Arab voter turnout, rising to 59% from a low of 49% in April.
The Joint List also made history by endorsing Blue and White leader and former defense chief Benny Gantz for the premiership.
In the Israeli system, elections are followed by the head of each party elected to the Knesset recommending a prime minister to the president. Based on these recommendations, President Reuven Rivlin gives the chance to form a government to the person most likely to be able to form a functioning coalition.
The Arab parties traditionally do not recommend a Jewish candidate and avoid entering the fray of Zionist politics. However, Joint List leader Aymen Odeh said he supported Gantz in order to “create the majority needed to prevent another term for Mr Netanyahu.”
Ultimately, only 10 of the 13 Arab members of the Knesset recommended that the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli military be the head of the next government. The Balad party, a Palestinian nationalist faction within the Joint List, refused to back Gantz.
A statement from Balad criticized the former Chief of Staff for his “Zionist ideology, his right-wing positions that are not much different from Likud’s, and his bloody and aggressive military history.”
Balad’s decision may be crucial in that it deprives Gantz of the support he needs to overcome Netanyahu’s 55 recommenders. Without Balad, the former chief of staff has 54 and Netanyahu will likely receive first crack at forming a coalition, but his hold on power is far from assured.
On Monday, top US envoys Jason Greenblatt and David Friedman met with Gantz, in a sign the Trump administration is preparing for all political possibilities.
Although they may not be kingmakers, the higher participation of Israeli-Palestinians in the elections is remarkable. There were two major reasons for the change in Arab voting habits.
The first was the significant amount of anti-Arab incitement in these elections. The Likud party installed cameras outside polling stations in Arab cities, and Netanyahu’s official Facebook page posted that Israeli-Palestinians “want to annihilate us all – women, children and men.”
The statement was later disavowed, but the racist atmosphere around the Likud campaign created a backlash amongst Israeli-Palestinians, many of whom were inspired to vote Netanyahu out of office.
The second reason was the stated intention of the Joint List leadership to influence political decision making in Israel. Until now, no Arab parties have ever been included in a governing coalition, which is the hub of political power and allocation of resources in the Israeli system.
This outcome is due to the dominant view by Zionist politicians and Jewish voters that Arab participation in government is a security risk. Lack of influence has also been facilitated by the tendencies of previous Arab party leaders to put the politics of racial resentment ahead of the socioeconomic needs of their constituents.
Odeh says his priorities include “housing and planning laws that afford people in Arab municipalities the same rights as their Jewish neighbors,” raising pensions for all Israelis and a return to negotiations for the creation of a Palestinian state along 1967 borders.
This participation appears to be what his constituents want. According to a survey released by the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, 76% of the Arab constituency would like their representatives to join the coalition and influence the policy of the government.
Breaking a taboo
Odeh’s desire to participate in a coalition, however, has not been reciprocated by center-left politicians. Blue and White have stated that they will not enter a government with the Arab party.
The possibility of Arab politicians participating in decision making on issues of war and peace is still taboo for many Jewish voters on both sides of the political spectrum. However, this is not as insurmountable an obstacle as it once was.
According to the same survey, the number of Jews opposed to Arab participation in the coalition has dropped from two-thirds to 49% in recent years. This is still high, but since most of those opposed are presumably right-wingers, it may not be as much of a barrier to cooperation with left-wing parties.
The decision of the Joint List to join forces with Zionist parties could potentially alter the electoral math in Israel. The Blue and White party does not have the numbers to run a government independent of the right-wing without the support of the Arab alliance.
However, if Odeh and his party are willing to support a Gantz-led coalition from the outside, a functioning minority government could conceivably be formed. This may seem far-fetched, but it has happened before.
During the negotiations over the Oslo process, the Labor Party-led coalition began to crumble under the stress of concessions made to the PLO, and Arab parties stepped in to back the government.
Under current conditions, distaste for Netanyahu in much of Israeli society coupled with the need to avoid yet another long and costly election may open the door to Arab-Jewish political cooperation.
Briefings from Mossad
A more likely option is that the Likud and Blue and White will form a unity government, leaving Odeh as the official leader of the opposition.
This would mean that for the first time, an Arab Knesset member could become Israel’s official opposition leader. Should that happen, not only would Odeh have the right to rebuttals to the prime minister in the Knesset, he would also be accorded meetings with all visiting dignitaries and given briefings from the country’s intelligence agency the Mossad.
Whatever the outcome, the game changing Palestinian voter turnout will lead to greater involvement in Israeli democracy by the often-marginalized community.
“[Netanyahu’s] incitement boomeranged. We used it against him. We showed people what he was saying and explained that he doesn’t want them to vote,” said Joint List campaign manager Aaed Kayal.
Aside from its positive ramifications for Israel, the outcome of the election also carries a positive message for the rest of the world. Netanyahu attempted to use race-baiting to achieve optimal electoral outcomes, frequently by turning the Arabs into his punching bag. However, the Israeli-Palestinian community punched back with force.
It reminds us that as long as we preserve democracy, beleaguered minorities can and will use the process to fight back. There is hope yet.