How the Jewish Left and Palestinian Arabs Can Remake Israeli Politics

A political alliance between Israel’s left wing and Arab parties could topple Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the head of Israel's Arab parliamentary bloc, Ayman Odeh, during a discussion to vote on the dissolution of the Israeli parliament in the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 26, 2018. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks to the head of Israel's Arab parliamentary bloc, Ayman Odeh, during a discussion to vote on the dissolution of the Israeli parliament in the Knesset in Jerusalem on Dec. 26, 2018. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

After almost four years of a right-wing government that has weakened Israel’s democracy, raised ethnic tensions, and solidified its hold on the West Bank and its control of Gaza, Israelis have a chance to create a different future. In late December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for elections on April 9 after his current coalition wasn’t able to agree on a bill to mandate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men to the military. (They are currently exempt.) But that doesn’t mean change is on the horizon. At least three parties (Labor, Yesh Atid, and the newly formed Israel Resilience) are challenging Netanyahu’s Likud, but it is unclear whether any of them will be able to create the parliamentary majority needed to oust Bibi’s government. More importantly, it is unclear if a new government would present an ideological alternative, one that would seek to end the occupation and strengthen democracy in Israel.

In no small part, that weakness is due to the Israeli left’s failed efforts over the last decade and a half to create strong enough coalitions to challenge the right. For the left in Israel, Yitzhak Rabin’s center-left coalition of the 1990s is now a faded memory. But there is another approach that would radically shift the direction Israel is traveling ideologically: a new political alliance between the Jewish left (Labor and Meretz parties) and the Palestinian Arab parties in Israel.

Since Ehud Barak lost his Labor Party-led government in 2001, the conventional wisdom on the Jewish left of the Israeli political spectrum has been that the path to return to power runs through bargains made, and relationship cemented, with the country’s centrist parties. The idea is a moderate block that straddles the middle, borrowing parties from the left and right. But this strategy has consistently failed for one reason: The centrist parties haven’t cooperated and have chosen to sit with right-wing parties instead of with the left. The Third Way in 1996, Shinui in 2003, Yesh Atid in 2013, and Kulanu in 2015—all joined in a center-right or right-wing coalition instead of committing to a center-left coalition.

The leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, who is running for prime minister, for example, has consistently maintained that he does not want to be part of a center-left block and sees the center as an alternative to both left and right equally.

Only Kadima, the party of the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then later Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, made the opposite choice in 2006. But these politicians came from the right and made an explicit and public decision to leave the right to pursue a two-state solution and the disengagement from Gaza.

Instead of turning solely to the Jewish centrist parties, the Jewish left should turn to the Palestinian parties within Israel. Fifteen percent of Israel’s electorate are Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, and in the 2015 election four Arab parties joined together in one “Joint List,” which became the third-largest alliance in the country. The Joint List’s leader, Ayman Odeh, has consistently reached out for partnership with the Jewish left in Israel. “I am committed to doing everything I can to bring about the end of the occupation and advance full equality for Arab citizens, as well as to promote democracy. The first stage of achieving these goals is to bring down the right-wing government,” Odeh said in 2017. “I don’t intend to sit on the sidelines and let a Netanyahu-Bennett coalition continue to lead us on the road to annexation, apartheid, discrimination, and incitement.”

But despite the obvious political benefits of partnering with such a large camp, the Jewish left has been reluctant. The reasons are multifaceted.

There is, to begin with, resistance from some of the leadership of the Jewish left. Labor leader Avi Gabbay said in an interview in 2017: “We will not sit with them, unequivocally. … I do not see anything that connects us to them [the Arab political parties] or allows us to be in the same government with them.” Former Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog said in 2016 that the center was taking away votes from the Labor Party because he claimed to hear, “in endless encounters with the Israeli public that we are always Arab lovers.”

There is also a lack of trust within the Arab leadership. In the 2015 elections, the Joint List as a whole refused to sign a vote-sharing agreement with the liberal Meretz party, thereby hurting the left block electorally and damaging the prospect of an Arab-Jewish left alliance. Even though the Joint List chair, Odeh, later stated publicly that he regretted this decision, other party voices were wary of a potential alliance.

But the distance between both camps is not just tactical; there is a deeper difference. Many on the Jewish left believe that Israel can (and must) maneuver between its desire to be both Jewish and democratic. Last August, Livni, now the head of the liberal Hatnuah party, explained her vision of a Jewish democratic state as “the nation-state of the Jewish people that provides equal rights to all its citizens without discrimination.” But even if an argument can be made for how theoretically a Jewish state can treat its Arab minority as equal citizens, a solid majority of Palestinian Arab Israelis don’t believe the Jewish and democratic model is even remotely sufficiently inclusive. In short, many Jews are content with Jewish ethnic ownership of the state so long as it grants equality to Arabs. But Arabs see democratic citizenship as one where everyone owns the state, both in theory and in practice. And this sense of exclusion is heightened by the fact that even state-sponsored committees underscore how institutionalized racism and neglect toward Arabs have existed since the state’s inception.

This rift is growing due to Netanyahu’s government. In recent years, the political legitimacy of Palestinian Arab Israelis has been continually challenged by politicians on the Israeli right, most notably by the 2018 Nation-State Law, which formally privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens legally, symbolically, and politically. The law codified the long-held practice that the participation of Arab citizens in the political process is a privilege granted to them by the Jewish majority. And while the Arab parties called to abolish the bill, leadership on the Jewish left fumbled, unsure whether to try to amend the bill or to fight it. This indecision had public manifestations. When the Arab minority marched against the bill and needed most the support of the Jewish left, Livni, then the leader of the opposition, refused to attend the protest, explaining, “We didn’t come because we believe Israel must be both a Jewish and a democratic state. … [T]here are people — and regrettably, the leaders of the Arab parties’ Joint List are among them — who have trouble accepting Israel’s definition as the Jewish nation-state, even if it were to ensure equality.”

But alliances between the Jewish left and Palestinian Arab political parties aren’t a new idea. The government of former Prime Minister Rabin was able to move forward on a peace process in the 1990s only thanks to Arab parties in Israel. Two Arab parties representing five seats in the Israeli parliament helped maintain the coalition necessary to push forward the Oslo accords. This alliance held until a right-wing assailant assassinated Rabin in 1995.

Former Prime Minister Barak also owed his 1999 victory to the Arab vote. Seventy-five percent of Arabs voted in the 1999 elections, with 94 percent voting for Barak. But then the relationship soured quickly. Barak didn’t even meet with Arab parties as a courtesy gesture during the coalition negotiations. And during protests in 2000 over the Second Intifada, Israeli police killed 13 unarmed Arab protesters (all Israeli citizens) with sniper fire. No one was brought to justice. Anger in the Arab community then prompted an Arab boycott of the general election leading to a right-wing victory.

In the short run, the need to win elections mandates a renewed approach to a political alliance between the Jewish left and the Palestinian Arab parties. In the current political climate, it is hard to imagine a strong robust alliance. Yet even a thin pragmatic alliance, one that responds to both groups’ desires to combat the right wing’s attack on Israeli democracy, further a two-state solution, and create a more just and equal society—while not addressing their deeper ideological differences—can greatly benefit both sides.

In the long run, those who desire to create a political and ideological response to Netanyahu’s fear-mongering must ask themselves: What does it mean to be a liberal or progressive in Israel today? Not only do we need to call for ending the occupation within a framework of two states, but we must also address the fundamental political inequalities of the Arab minority in Israel. The Jewish left and the Arab Palestinian parties in Israel must be able to seek a more common political and ideological ground; otherwise Netanyahu’s claim of Arab citizens as a political threat to the Jewish state will remain without an ideological and political alternative.

An alliance based on political interests does not mean shelving forever a longer conversation on political and national identity. The need to work together—due to practical political weaknesses—can also be a crucial first step for mutual understanding of what a shared society can look like. If Jews and Arabs within Israel desire to see themselves in positions of leadership, the road lies through creating a stronger common civic identity, not through the heightening of differences.

Mikhael Manekin is a Jewish Israeli and a member of the Israeli Labor Party. He is also the Israel director for the Alliance for Israel’s Future. Twitter: @MikhaelManekin

Ameer Fakhoury is a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the head of the School for Peace Research Center at Wahat al-Salam-Neve Shalom.