Understanding Israel, Segment #2: The 2015 Election: Arab Parties

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This week, in Part Two of “Understanding Israel, The 2015 Election: Israel Politics and the Party System,” let’s look at the Arab parties.  

Israel’s population is 20% Arab, or as they prefer to call themselves, Palestinian.  Some, such as most living in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, have refused Israeli citizenship in favor of permanent residency, so not as to acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy. As permanent residents, they are entitled to vote in municipal, but not in national elections.  But Arab citizens of Israel do have full voting rights, although they are exempt from mandatory army service.  They may volunteer, but very few do so. 

Like Israeli politics generally, Arab-Israeli politics are complicated and fractured.  There are four principal Arab political parties: Hadash, Balad, the United Arab List, and Ta’al.  

The largest of these, Hadash, the “Democratic Front for Peace and Equality,” with four current Knesset seats, is a joint Arab-Jewish party with Communist roots.  It advocates complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and true equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Balad, the National Democratic Assembly party, with 3 seats in the current Knesset, similarly advocates Israel turning into "a state of all its citizens."   

The United Arab List, also with three seats, is a coalition of political organizations, including one faction that opposes Israel’s existence, and another that, like other Arab parties, opposes it as a Jewish state.  In the 2013 election, the United Arab List ran on a joint ticket with Ta’al, the Arab Movement for Renewal, which had one seat.  

So, in combination, these four Arab parties won 11 seats in the Knesset, or 9% of the total. Clearly, this proportional representation would be larger if more Arabs with permanent resident status elected to become citizens and voted. 

Unlike the so-called “Ultra-Orthodox” Jewish parties, the Arab parties typically align with the opposition rather than seeking to participate in the Governing coalition.  Nevertheless, Ta’al’s party leader, Ahmad Tibi, served as a Deputy Speaker of the Knesset. Other Arab Knesset members have been investigated for visits to countries legally designated as Israel’s enemies.  According to a study commissioned by the Arab Association of Human Rights, many Arab MKs have been beaten by Israeli police during demonstrations protesting the government.  (As an aside, it would be interesting to debate the similarities and differences between these and police actions seeking to suppress civil rights demonstrations in the US during the 1960s.)  

The most outspoken – and for many Jews, notorious – Arab member of the Knesset is Haneen Zoabi, of the Balad party.   Under Israeli law, supporting an armed struggle against Israel is grounds for disqualification as a Member of the Knesset.   Likud and Yisrael Beitenu – two of the three governing coalition parties, petitioned the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Zoabi from the coming election, and the principal opposition party election coalition (Zionist Union) has announced that its agrees.   

Zoabi denies supporting armed struggle, rather only a “popular struggle” against the occupation.  After being sworn-in as a Member of Parliament, she refused to stay for the playing of the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, arguing that its message of Jewish return and Jewish statehood did not reflect her people’s narrative or values. She was also on board the Gaza flotilla ship MV Mavi Marmara in 2010 when violence broke out as Israeli commandos boarded.  Zoabi was arrested and briefly held by authorities. The next day, she condemned, from the Knesset podium, what she called IDF brutality, and she received death threats.  
Despite the contrary recommendation of Israel’s Attorney General, the Central Elections Committee has accepted their petitions and has disqualified Zoabi from running in this election.  However, that decision is being appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to overturn it.  This would be a repeat of what occurred in 2013. 

Last year, the Knesset increased, from 2% to 3.5%, the electoral threshold needed for any party to win a seat, starting with this election.  This increased threshold was presented as an effort to reduce factionalism and to facilitate governance.  However, many saw it as an overt effort to reduce Arab party participation in Parliament.  

Partly in response, and despite their differences, the Arab parties are running this year on a single ticket as the “Joint Arab List.”  Their campaign motto is: “the Joint List, my answer to racism.”  

This one word, racism, conspicuously summarizes the basic grievance of Arab citizens of Israel.  Namely, that they are treated as second-class citizens because they do not identify with or support Israel as a Jewish state (or as a state of the Jews), because they reject the “Jewish narrative,” and because the current state refuses to respect their Nakba narrative as a 1948 disaster/explusion resulting in generations of refugees.  How can Israel not be a racist state, they argue, when any Jew from anywhere in the world can simply arrive and be granted citizenship, whereas their own family members born outside Israel lack this right.  

The Arab parties also argue that the current right-wing Israeli government continuously seeks to implement ever more racist laws, such as loyalty oaths and demands that Palestinians officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The primary legislative mission of the Arab parties is to resist all these steps, and to persuade an increasing number of liberal Jewish Israelis to join them in combating what they see as “racism.”  

Current polls indicate that the Arab election coalition will do at least as well as their current eleven seats.  According to news reports, the Joint Arab List rejected an offer by Isaac Herzog, the head of the “Zionist Union” – the main challengers to Bibi Netenyahu’s Likud party -- to join a governing coalition if Herzog becomes Prime Minister.   Therefore, they will remain in the opposition, but perhaps stronger than ever before.  

I’ll conclude this week’s segment by observing that some Jewish Israelis consider Israel’s Arab citizenry to be a “fifth-column,” or perhaps adding the demographics one could say a “one-fifth-column.”   In a word, disloyal.   But that view certainly depends upon how one views Israel’s purpose.  Should it be a Jewish state?  Or a “state of all its citizens?”  

Also, polls among the Arab, or Palestinian, citizens of Israel make clear that they do not wish to see Israel’s destruction; rather, its transformation.  As one example of this, so far as I am aware, there were no incidents of “sabotage” by Arab citizens in the recent Gaza war.  They want Israel to become a state in which they would enjoy full equality of rights and benefits with all other Israeli citizens.  A state in which they would live alongside, but not in, a sovereign Palestinian state.   Of course, this view highlights the tension between Israel’s avowed character as both Jewish and democratic. 

Next week, G-d willing, we will look at the Jewish religious political parties. Not just the ones usually referred to as "Haredi" or "Ultra-Orthodox," but Religious Zionists.  

Thank for reading this, or for listening.  I welcome your emailed comments to me at rabbiartlevine@gmail.com

I’m Rabbi Art Levine wishing you Shabbat Shalom and a deeper understanding of our Jewish home, Israel. 

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