Amid Political Chaos, a Chance for Israel’s Arab Minority

Seeking to form a government, Benny Gantz is meeting with the Arab Joint List. What does that mean for the political future of its constituency?

An election banner with a portrait of Arab Israeli candidate Waleed Taha
An election banner with a portrait of Arab Israeli candidate Waleed Taha is pictured in town of Kfar Qassem in Israel on Sept. 18. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

JERUSALEM—As Israeli political parties enter yet another round of negotiations to form a government, the Joint List, an alliance of four Arab parties, could be the kingmaker. For the first time in Israel’s history, the Arab minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the population, could wield significant political power in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition government within a month of the September election, President Reuven Rivlin last week passed the mandate to Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party. Gantz is now tasked with cobbling together a 61-seat coalition out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

Gantz initially said he would not include an Arab party in any coalition, but he has now begun negotiations with the Joint List and met with their representatives on Oct. 31. Joint List leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi told the press that there was a “positive atmosphere” in the meeting, which dealt with “issues that matter to the Arab community … with an emphasis on civilian issues.” Around 76 percent of Arab citizens are in favor of the party joining the government, according to the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research.

Formal political cooperation between Arab and Jewish parties has only one precedent in Israel, when Arab parties served as a supportive external bloc for the center-left minority government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s. But over the past 10 years under Netanyahu, there has been little mutual trust between Arab and Jewish parties and, until now, resistance to political collaboration from both communities. In September, Netanyahu and his Likud party ran a particularly toxic campaign against the Arab community, leading Facebook to sanction his official page for hate speech.

It is unlikely that Gantz, who is seeking a liberal, center-left coalition, will have an easier time forming a government than Netanyahu. If he fails, the country would hold its third election within a year. To avoid that scenario, Gantz could choose to form a minority government based on an agreement with the Joint List that it would support his government while not serving in it, as happened with Rabin’s government in the 1990s.

Even with external support from the Joint List, Gantz may not be able to form a government. He would also need the support of some of the parties, possibly including the ultra-Orthodox parties, that are still maintaining support for Netanyahu as well as the support of the maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman, who is refusing to join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox and continues to vilify the Joint List as a “fifth column.”

Furthermore, it would appear that Gantz believes that the very perception of being open to the possibility of counting on the Arab support could prove to be politically damaging in the event that Israel does, indeed, go into a third election campaign. It is thus unclear whether Gantz is negotiating with the Joint List as a tactic—a threat to the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties that he will be forced to make a pact with the Arab parties or that they will be responsible for sending the country back to elections—or as a sincere effort to bring them into his political circle.

The very fact that Gantz is meeting with the Joint List is setting a precedent that could shape the future political participation of their Arab constituents.

Nevertheless, the very fact that Gantz is meeting with the Joint List is setting a precedent that could shape the future political participation of their Arab constituents, who have long felt locked out of Israel’s political system. Israel’s Arab citizens face longstanding inequalities. About half are below the poverty line, and state funds are not allocated equally among Arab and Jewish municipalities. And their identity is complex. While the Hebrew press often refers to them as “Israeli Arabs,” some prefer to refer to themselves as Palestinian Arabs with Israeli citizenship—or Palestinian Israelis for short.

Thabet Abu Rass, the co-director of the Abraham Fund, a Jewish-Arab group promoting coexistence and equality, said that this level of engagement represents a “paradigm shift” in the way that Palestinian Israelis participate in politics. “For the first time, Arabs in Israel are taking an active part in the political process,” he said, “and, for the first time, they may have the power to influence changes in Israeli society—for the betterment of Arabs and Jews alike.”

Referring to Gantz’s hesitations and the ongoing incitement against the Arab citizens, Abu Rass added, “We know that on the Jewish side, it will take longer until they accept us as equals. But we are finally on the playing field. That’s what matters.”

Ahead of Israel’s general elections on Sept. 19, Arab politicians were concerned that Arab citizens wouldn’t show up to vote. It was the second election in six months, and in the April election voter turnout among Arab citizens declined to under 50 percent, a historic low.

Many Palestinian Israelis have felt a sense of futility within the Israeli system: that they have little political ability to change their personal or collective circumstances. There were many calls within the Palestinian Israeli community to boycott the elections this year. In January, the writer Salman Masalha wrote in Haaretz that the existence of Arab parties in the Knesset is to “serve as a fig leaf that covers the nakedness of Israel’s so-called democracy.”

Instead of staying away from the polls, Arab voter turnout increased by over 10 percentage points, giving the Joint List 13 seats and making it the third-largest party in the Knesset. And for the first time since 1992, a party representing the Palestinian Israelis responded to the president’s invitation to make a recommendation for prime minister—recommending Gantz.

It was the Joint List and its platform, along with a strong grassroots get-out-the-vote movement, that likely convinced Arab voters to come out in September. The differences among the four parties that make up the Joint List are significant. The Balad party emphasizes its opposition to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state; Hadash, the communist party, focuses on creating a socialist economy and workers’ rights; Taal is concerned largely with establishing an independent Palestinian state; and the United Arab List is a political branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel.

Although the Joint List won 13 seats in the 2015 elections, the parties ran separately in April due to these ideological differences. “The public punished them by refusing to vote at all,” said Abu Rass. He further noted that, in contrast to 2015 and the April elections, the Joint List’s platform in September concentrated on issues relevant to their constituents’ daily lives: crime, poverty, and housing shortages.

“We need to struggle for solutions to our problems. That is what our constituency wants.”

That change was intentional, according to Aida Touma-Sliman, who holds the fifth seat on the Joint List as a representative of the communist Hadash party. “Arab politicians may have put too much emphasis on the Palestinian national cause,” she said. “We are still committed to our national agenda as Palestinians, and we support our brothers and sisters in the West Bank and Gaza. But life is so hard for Palestinian citizens of Israel. We need to struggle for solutions to our problems. That is what our constituency wants.”

The show of support for a unified Arab party reveals something more about the current generation of Palestinian Israelis, Abu Rass said: that they are willing to engage in “resistance through engagement,” pursuing change through the political system. “Until now, Arabs in Israel have largely complained about their situation. Now they have moved from the politics of whining to the politics of engagement,” he said.

“We have come to recognize our power as citizens to improve our lives, and we are willing to use that power.”

Among this new, engaged generation of Palestinian Israelis are activists and artists such as the feminist filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud, who was a vocal part of the get-out-the-vote effort. She attributes the shift to changing identities.

“Our parents’ generation struggled to survive economically and socially and, following the occupation of Palestine by Israel in 1967, they struggled to assert their national identity,” she said. “But we were born into the state. We are unwilling to tolerate the discrimination against us, whether in Israeli Jewish society or in our own Palestinian society.”

Hamoud pointed to recent forms of legal discrimination against Palestinian Israelis, such as the controversial nation-state law passed by the Knesset last year, establishing Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people.” “It has turned us into second-class citizens,” she said. “And this has motivated people, like me, to vote, instead of disconnecting.”

Hamoud noted that activists like her share a common vocabulary and approach with Odeh, Touma-Sliman, and several other members of the Joint List. “They didn’t come up the ranks as politicians. They were involved as activists in social-change organizations before they turned to politics,” she said. “We feel connected.” A viral music video by Tamer Nafar, the founder of the first Palestinian hip-hop group, DAM, grapples with resistance through engagement. First released before the April elections and re-released in September, his song “Tamer Must Vote” depicts Nafar in a boxing ring, rapping through his internal conflict about the elections. “It doesn’t make sense for me to give up a tool when I hardly have any tools,” he concludes.

Maysoon al-Hadid, a feminist activist, said that she understood why Palestinian Israelis would boycott the elections, as it could feel like their votes were meaningless. “But real opposition means we have to take advantage of any tools we have,” she said.

Beyond the ballot box, Palestinian Israelis see other forms of resistance through engagement. For some, that includes using the institutions of the state of Israel to further their goals—even if it means resistance to other Arab citizens.

For example, as the election campaign was heating up in August, the Palestinian Israeli mayor of Umm al-Fahm, a largely Palestinian city in northern Israel, canceled a scheduled performance by Nafar because of the content of his songs. Nafar turned to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which filed a court petition to challenge the mayor’s decision. The court sided with Nafar and annulled the mayor’s decision, ruling that it was a violation of his right to free expression.

Some criticized Nafar’s petition on the grounds that it grants legitimacy to Israel as a Jewish state. But Hassan Jabareen, an attorney who leads Adalah, a nonprofit legal center for Palestinians, said turning to the court doesn’t legitimize the state’s discrimination. Rather, he said, “It is a way of forcing the state’s institutions to acknowledge our rights as both Palestinians and as citizens.”

Similarly, the filmmaker Hamoud said that she has faced criticism for accepting grants from Israeli funding institutions. She rebuffs her critics, noting that as a citizen and taxpayer she has the right to obtain a grant. “By accepting money for my work, I am resisting and actually co-opting the Israeli establishment,” she said.

For Hadid, resistance through engagement—whether a court challenge, turning out to vote, or even taking part in a government coalition—is all that Palestinian Israelis currently have to work with in the absence of an alternative political framework.

“Despite everything, I am convinced our presence in this oppressive system is better than our absence,” she said.

Eetta Prince-Gibson is the Israel editor for Moment magazine, the former editor in chief of the Jerusalem Report, and a regular contributor to Haaretz, +61J, and other international publications.