Developing discourse on Jewish-Arab political cooperation

Developing discourse on Jewish-Arab political cooperation

June 26, 2019

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Partnership between Arab-led and Jewish-led political parties, and the legitimacy of Arab political participation in Israel, is a long-standing and controversial issue in Israeli national politics. The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, remembered predominantly for the Oslo accords, was also the only Prime Minister to rely on Arab parties as an external bloc to sustain a minority government—a level of cooperation that was used to delegitimize his policies, and has yet to be repeated.

In recent years, discussion about the possibility and viability of Jewish-Arab political cooperation in the national arena has resurfaced. In part, as a result of Arab citizens’ growing participation in Israel’s socio-economic spheres, there is greater interest in being part of government decision-making circles. Such cooperation is more fundamentally viewed by shared society proponents as a necessary component of economic advancement contributing to Israel’s democratic strength and social cohesion.

Aside from the progressive social-democratic party Meretz, left and center-left Jewish-led political parties in Israel have been reluctant to become associated with Arab politicians, much less find common ground towards formal cooperation. Arab and Jewish parties’ political priorities and preconditions for formal cooperation can present a mutual challenge for party leaders and their constituencies. However, on numerous occasions Jewish and Arab MKs cooperate tactically on a variety of issues and common interests, and most non-Haredi Jewish parties have made sure to include an Arab or Druze representative in their party lists.

Among Arab leadership, ideological differences among the four parties, Balad, Hadash, Ra’am and Ta’al, have affected their ability to speak and act in unison on the issue, but more have been vocal about the potential of working together with Jewish parties to effect meaningful change in the government. Public opinion polls in recent years have consistently shown interest within Arab society to be part of Israel’s governing mainstream.

Changes Motivated by 2019 National Elections                                                               

In the wake of divisive April election campaigns, in which the legitimacy of Arab political participation and Jewish-Arab cooperation became a wedge issue and the center-left was unable to defeat the incumbent government by attracting voters from the right, the significance and potential of Jewish-Arab cooperation has gained urgency and momentum. Many civil society leaders, intellectuals, and political activists lamented the lost potential of the Arab vote and have been arguing more emphatically that Jewish-Arab cooperation is key to strengthening the left.

Only days before new elections were called, the participation of MK Ayman Odeh in a massive opposition rally in Tel Aviv indicated a shift in both center-left and Arab leadership approaches to these issues. While both Benny Gantz, head of Kahol Lavan, and MK Odeh, Chair of Hadash-Ta’al and former Chair of the Joint List, faced internal challenges over this cooperation (including disagreements among Arab leadership, and two top Kahol Lavan MKs boycotting the event), both set the tone intended “to continue this successful experiment.

Since new elections were announced, discussion towards such cooperation has become more pronounced, if also more complicated. Political leaders initially spoke of possible mergers, new Jewish-Arab lists, and a brief effort within Meretz towards joint Jewish/Arab leadership after the party won 8.7% of the Arab vote (a larger share of the Arab vote than any other Jewish party, accounting for almost one-quarter of all votes cast for Meretz). Ultimately, Arab-led parties chose to re-form the Joint List, ruling out the possibility of any other alliance, and Meretz leadership rejected the co-leadership proposal. But for both Arab and left-wing parties, the possibility of working together to increase the overall left-wing vote towards a future governing coalition or opposition remains a central focus.

Civil Society Efforts

What such cooperation might look like, and how Arab and Jewish political leaders can bridge the large ideological and confidence gaps between them, is not yet clear. Towards that end, beyond the tactical discussions taking place within parties focused on the September 17 vote, civil society leaders and political activists have been working to advance substantive dialogues and grassroots actions on these issues through leadership conferences, roundtables and political organizing.  A few recent examples include:

  • On May 31, a day after new elections were called, the Berl Katznelson Center held a conference bringing together left and center-left Jewish and Arab leadership for discussion about working together to build their ‘camp.’
  • On June 23, the Israel Democracy Institute brought together representatives from the opposition parties to discuss Arab parties and voters in the upcoming elections and visions for full parliamentary cooperation between Arabs and Jews.
  • Zazim and Standing Together are building grassroots movements to combat divisive discourse in elections and motivate political participation among Arab citizens towards greater cooperation in the national political arena.

These events build on renewed research and publications on the subject, such as the 2018 publications of Attainable Alliances, by the Research Center at Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom; Political Aspects of the Lives of Arab Citizens in Israel, by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, inclusion of these issues in the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual surveys of Jewish-Arab relations, a poll of related public attitudes by Local Call, and articles promoting such partnership in the new magazine “Telem” issued by the Berl Katznelson center (Hebrew).

In addition, a number of Jewish and Arab shared society leaders have written articles making the case for political cooperation, including Mikhael Manekin and Ameer Fakhoury in Foreign Policy Magazine, Ron Gerlitz from Sikkuy, (Hebrew), Mohammed Darwashe (Hebrew) and Yaniv Sagee (Hebrew) from Givat Haviva, the co-directors of Standing Together and the co-directors of the Abraham Initiatives.

Arab Public Discourse

The most vocal Arab political leader speaking about this issue has been Hadash Chair Ayman Odeh who on numerous occasions has spoken about the need to attract Jewish voters to the Joint List and to cooperate with Jewish-led parties. In a recent Haaretz podcast (Hebrew), MK Odeh said that if the Arab parties become the ones that could make or break a center-left government, they "need to act smart and ensure influence" and would thus cooperate with Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan Party. 

More recently, additional voices from within the Arab political leadership are making similar statements, and even MK Mansour Abbas, chair of the Ra’am party, representing the Southern Islamic Movement, wrote on Facebook that Arab leadership must ”act outside the box” in regards to the general Israeli politics, to “understand the other Israeli discourse…and find ways to work in relations and together with it,” lamenting that Arab leadership is in a “status quo of no influence” [over general Israeli politics] since the Oslo period” (Arabic and Hebrew). 

In parallel, a variety of Arab activists and journalists are calling for such cooperation. Haaretz journalist Jack Khoury wrote that “new elections are the golden opportunity for Arab parties," but that "if they don't band with Jewish parties to present an alternative to Netanyahu, they can forget about change." This sentiment was echoed by others in Arab society, including columnist and activist, Odeh Bisharat, who wrote that finally, “Arabs and democratic Jewish elements are learning that we must join hands with those who until yesterday were on the other side of the divide…The challenge ahead is to turn the decree of Arab-Jewish cooperation into a win-win situation.”

Activist and writer Afif Abu Moch emphasized the current opportunity for such partnership: "The center-left parties have now realized that only the Arab citizens can bring about a political turnover in this country,” and how every opposition party “all of a sudden do not dismiss the Arab citizens and even begin to talk in favor of adding an Arab candidate to their list." (Hebrew)

Speaking about the interests of the younger Arab generation, Mohammed Kaabia, a media consultant, said “We want to integrate…Young Arabs don’t want their representatives spending all their time focusing on the Palestinians. There are plenty of educated young people who are waiting for the day an Arab is appointed Minister of Health.”

Jewish Public Discourse

In Jewish society, many voices are urging the left and center-left (and even right wing) to figure out how to effectively partner with Arab society, though there is still significant hesitation especially regarding the more hard-line Balad party, which was and is expected to again be part of the Joint List.

The most recent explicit expression of willingness to partner with Arab parties came from the newest center-left party. Former general Yair Golan, number 2 on former Prime Minister’s Ehud Barak’s newly announced list, openly expressed not only his willingness to consider including Arab parties in a governing coalition, but the importance of legitimizing Arab political participation in an interview on Israel’s Kann Bet radio: "Anyone who believes in a Jewish and democratic state that accepts minorities with kindness we don't reject him, we reject only those who reject the very existence of the State.” He went on to say, if given the opportunity, the new list will “invite anyone who agrees with the principles I spoke about, including Ayman Odeh. There are twenty percent Arab residents here, do we want to disqualify them? Look at the approach of Ben-Gurion and Eshkol and Rabin and Begin to the Arab population. They had a welcoming attitude. I don't understand why we should take twenty percent of the residents of Israel and make them illegitimate."

This follows increasing numbers of Jewish politicians, military personnel, journalists and activists publicly making the case for such cooperation. Politicians, military personnel, journalists and activists are also weighing in on the possibility. Former minister, politician and diplomat Yossi Beilin, writing about the second chance that new elections afford Kahol Lavan, underscored that “a willingness to have a dialogue and cooperate with those Arab lawmakers open to engaging is a prerequisite, even if ultimately insufficient, for the party to rise to power.” Former politician Uzi Baram urged a “clear alliance of interests between the Arab community and opponents of the right [that] can bring about a change in government”

When discussing the low Arab voter turnout in April, former Hadash MK Dov Khenin stressed the importance of direct communication between Kahol Lavan leadership and the Arab public, saying: “I believe that if Kahol Lavan displays a willingness to confront the crucial national issues of the Arab public, voter turnout in Arab communities could be raised to 65% in order to defeat the right. They [the Kahol Lavan leaders] must tell [the Arab public] that they are citizens with equal rights and that this is their state as much as it is the state of its Jewish citizens.” In Labor, more and more voices are mentioning this issue as primaries for party chair approach (scheduled for July 2) while in Meretz this has become a central emphasis of the party’s recent discourse. Other voices are calling for the establishment of a new Jewish-Arab party (e.g. renowned writer David Grossman – Hebrew).

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