Conventional wisdom in Israel has consistently maintained that the Arab community in the country, while privy to the fundamental civil right to vote and be elected, is not, as a collective, considered a worthy partner in any ruling coalition in the country. Dating back to the formative years of the state, successive prime ministers and contenders for high office have dismissed the possibility of incorporating Arab parties or their representatives into the government, relegating them in perpetuity to the opposition, and hence to extended political marginalization. They have thus given a hand to the systemic exclusion of Arab society in the country from the corridors of power, thereby contributing to the entrenchment of inequality based on national origin, in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
At the close of the second decade of the 21st century, this mindset is unsustainable morally, legally, and practically. It asserts Israel’s claim to be the national expression of the Jewish people at the expense of its obligation as a sovereign state to extend equal access to rights and resources to all its citizens (and especially to minority groups in the country). This is the cornerstone of free societies: no self-respecting democracy today can expect to successfully maintain itself if it distances more than one-fifth of its citizens from the decision-making hub. This is doubly true of Israel, which purports to promote Jewish values yet so willfully ignores the humanitarian legacy embedded in its own traditions. Ultimately, therefore, this practice is self-defeating: it creates groups that have little stake in the system. Moreover, it undermines both its authority and its prospects for constructive political change, which depend on the inclusion of all citizens in Israel’s development and sustainability over time.
Arab society in Israel, according to the latest figures published by the Central Bureau of Statistics, constitutes 20.9% (1,849,000) of the Israeli population (8,842,000). The Jewish population numbers 6,589,000 (74.5%); 4.6% of the country’s citizens (about 404,000) are designated as non-Arab Christians and “others.” Despite these figures, from the outset, Arab citizens have been systematically under-represented in elected political office at the national level.
Only 51 Arabs have served in the Knesset during Israel’s 70 years of independence. Initially, they were elected via satellite lists associated with major political parties or within the framework of the Arab-Jewish Communist Party of Israel (Maki). After the cancellation of the military administration over the Arab community in 1966, representatives were incorporated into the parent party lists. Since the 1970s, independent parties — most notably Hadash, and then the Progressive Movement, the United Arab List (Ra’am), the Arab National Movement (Ta’al), and Balad successfully fielded candidates and gained representation in the Knesset. By 2013, these parties — as diverse in their ideological orientation and their socioeconomic predilections as their Jewish counterparts — accounted for 11 members of the Knesset (9.2%).
On the eve of the last general election in 2015, a law initially designed to limit Arab representation raised the electoral threshold to 3.25%, effectively forcing these very different political groupings to forge an electoral alliance under the umbrella of the Joint (Arab) List. To the surprise of many, not least those who hoped to clip the political wings of Arab society in the country, the Joint List garnered 13 seats (10.8%). Five other Arab members were elected on the Labor, Meretz, Israel Beyteinu, Likud and Kulanu slates — raising the percentage of Arab representation in the Knesset to 15% — still below their proportion in the general population.
Nevertheless, until the second Rabin government in the early 1990s, when Nawaf Massalha (Labor) and Walid Sadik (Meretz) were appointed deputy ministers, no Arabs were included in the government. Since then, a number of deputy ministers and, briefly, several ministers all representing mainstream parties, have been appointed. No predominantly Arab list has ever been formally incorporated into the ruling coalition (although, during the Rabin years, Hadash was part of the blocking majority in the Knesset). Arab citizens continue to be woefully under-represented in appointed office as well: while they constitute barely 7% of low and middle level positions in the civil service, they occupy scarcely 3% of managerial slots. In brief: elected office for Arab citizens of Israel has never been translated into a share of political power at the apex.
Israeli leaders have traditionally justified the systematic distancing of the Arab community from the power nexus by pointing to the seeming contradiction between their Palestinian identity and their Israeli citizenship — a rationale invoked increasingly after the establishment of Israeli control over the territories captured in 1967. This perception enabled systemic discrimination against the Arab community — one which has rendered them second class citizens lagging far behind their Jewish counterparts.
The more they were shunned by the establishment, the more Arab citizens opted out of mixed political parties, preferring to establish their own lists in an effort to promote their specific interests and concerns. But, over time, their belief in their ability to affect policy at the national level has waned. Participation in national elections has declined (to 63.7% in the last elections), and remains well below the national average. At the same time, Arab involvement at the municipal level has averaged close to 90% in recent polls. Progressively, a cycle of exclusion, self-enclosure, and marginalization has evolved, reinforcing the notion that Palestinian citizens of Israel, no matter what they think or do, are outside the power establishment in the country.
Suspicion has thus combined with bigotry and ethnocentricity to foster alienation, which in turn has fueled further animosity and isolation. This pattern has peaked in recent years, with the government-orchestrated campaign to delegitimize the elected Arab leadership in Israel, to denigrate their demands and to question their loyalty. Binyamin Netanyahu’s election-day call to get out and vote because “the Arabs are going in droves to the polling stations” was just the external populist articulation of what has become, for all intents and purposes, a racist discourse, backed by discriminatory policies and legislation, against anything smacking of non-Jewish participation in the affairs of state.
To press the point home, the Likud has made in eminently clear that there is no room for Arab partners in the coalition (although individual Arab citizens, preferably Druze, can still reach high office). The same sentiment is shared by its coalition partners in Israel Beyteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu. Yair Lapid, the main contender for the office of prime minister, already declared four years ago that he would not strike an alliance with what he derisively dubbed as “the Zoabis” (broadly referring to possibly disloyal Arab citizens). Avi Gabbay, the newly elected head of the Labor party, has similarly indicated that for him and his party, a political coalition with even some Arab parties is a non-starter. No amount of investment in Arab society (most notably Government Decision 922, allocating NIS 150 billion over five years to close the chasm between Jewish and Arab society in Israel) can build up trust when Arab citizens of Israel are not directly involved in the decisions that affect their own lives.
Such an approach is misconceived both electorally and normatively. On the electoral level, it severely handicaps the prospects for political change because it removes over 20% of the population from the political equation. More fundamentally, it totally blurs the differences between the hegemonic viewpoint of the current ruling coalition that insists on subjugating basic communal values to ethnocentric considerations, and open, pluralistic and embracing alternatives to this narrow and decidedly monolithic interpretation of Israeli identity. Without a different, more compelling, and holistic vision for the country, Israel’s democratic future and its inner being are at risk.
It is high time to clearly and decisively break the taboo on the political inclusion of Arab parties in Israeli governments. This is the only way that Israelis can begin to extricate themselves from the ethnic cocoon that envelops them and develop their shared society through the fortification of common democratic spaces. Strengthening civic bonds and creating political alliances in no way compromises national identities; it provides room for different groups to come together to promote common interests without disavowing their cultures and traditions.
Israel will never be able to fulfill its mission as the national homeland of the Jewish people if it is not prepared to ensure that it is the state of all its citizens in practice as well as in theory. This is the first, critical, step towards a new political reality that will enable the creation of a fairer, stronger and more decent Israel.