This week’s Israeli election was historic, but not for the reasons most pundits are saying. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party may have won the vote—and the headlines—but the real story was occuring beneath Netanyahu’s feet, where the political ground shifted dramatically. It was no coincidence that at the eleventh hour Netanyahu warned his right-wing base that “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and that, in the final tally, Palestinian political power inside the Knesset surged to unprecedented levels. If political and demographic trends continue—and there is no separate Palestinian state, another Netanyahu pre-vote pledge—the 2015 election could well come to be seen as the moment that Israel began to confront the stark choice of becoming “either a non-Jewish democracy or Jewish non-democracy,” as Thomas L. Friedman put it on Wednesday.
It was, therefore, an election laden with ironies. At the same time as the vote tally all but ensured that a hard-line Zionist prime minister would continue his record-long tenure, a coalition of Palestinian-oriented parties became the third-largest bloc in Israel’s political landscape, with 14 seats in the new Knesset.
The coalition has been officially dubbed the “Joint List,” in order to emphasize that it is a forum for Jewish-Arab cooperation, rather than simply a vehicle for the political aspirations of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But, in fact, Israel’s Palestinian citizens are the primary constituency of the Joint List. Israel’s voters don’t vote directly for local candidates, as in the British parliamentary system. Instead, Israel employs a system of proportional representation in which the electorate votes for a grouping, usually of a party or set of parties, that has submitted a hierarchical list of members, beginning at number one and proceeding down the line.
Depending on how many votes a list receives, it is entitled to a proportionate number of seats in the Knesset, which are then assigned to the list according to the existing hierarchy. If a party earns nine seats, the first nine members on its list will become MKs, and so forth.
In January, the Hadash, United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al parties, along with the the southern branch of the Islamic Movement, merged their candidates into a single list under the Joint List rubric. Hadash, a far-left-wing grouping that includes Israel’s Communist Party members, goes furthest in representing the ideal of Jewish-Arab cooperation, and its leader, Ayman Odeh, has served as the overall head and chairman of the Joint List. Of the Joint List’s 14 seats, one will go to a Jewish MK: Dov Khenin, the leader of the communist members of Hadash. The rest will all be Palestinian citizens of Israel. In addition to four Arab MKs returned by “Zionist parties,” this means that 17 of the 120-member incoming Israeli Knesset will be Arab citizens of the state.
To be sure, the Joint List is a long way from representing real political power. The coalition attempts to unite leftists, Islamists, nationalists and others who share little in common apart from their ethnicity. The “Islamic Movement,” Israel’s Islamist party, is already divided between the southern branch that joined the List, and the northern branch that denounced the entire project. The incoming government represented by the powerful new right-wing Jewish majority under Netanyahu will undoubtedly have both a negative political and emotional impact on the List’s constituencies.
Still, the List has proven its ability to at least sustain the presence of Palestinians in the Knesset and, if it unites them, could strongly enhance their potential clout. Given the way political power is dispersed in Israel—where no party has ever actually won a majority of the Knesset and governments must always be based on coalitions—if the Arabs stick together and build on what they have already achieved, what has suddenly emerged as the third-largest bloc in Israel’s parliament won’t remain marginal or irrelevant into the future.
By playing their cards right, Israel’s Palestinian citizens can, at the very least, position themselves as potential kingmakers of the future of Israeli politics. This could happen sooner than people think, since the distribution of power in the Knesset has grown only more dispersed in recent elections, when the party or list that ended up forming a governing coalition won an average of only about 30 seats (the exact number that Likud won this time). If so, that makes it even more plausible that a Palestinian-joined coalition, representing a united front of Israel’s 18-percent Arab minority, could gain power and influence.
There was another irony of this election. Israel’s Arab citizens have struggled for decades as a political anomaly and under significant discriminatory and exclusionary measures. But it was precisely one of those recent initiatives from the ascendant Israeli right wing, a “Governance Bill,” passed in March, 2014, that gave rise to the Joint List. The law raised the threshold for Knesset membership from 2 percent to 3.25 percent of votes cast. It was widely perceived as primarily aimed at damaging, or even eliminating, Arab representation in the Knesset because Hadash and Balad would not have qualified under the new system. The response was for the Arab-oriented parties in Israel to band together in an unprecedented manner and actually strengthen their political profile.
All this represents an important reminder to Israelis about the contradictions inherent in a “democratic Jewish” state, given the presence of millions of disenfranchised non-citizens in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. If Israel’s Arab citizens can begin to mobilize political power through the ballot box, the long-term danger posed by an occupation that does not end is clarified. What if the Palestinians of the West Bank, and even Gaza, were to one day join the constituency for another version of a “Joint List”?
Perhaps that’s one reason that Netanyahu, by Thursday, already appeared to be walking back his election-eve pledge—which was plainly a sop to the extreme right wing— telling MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he’s still interested in “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
Though they constitute about 18 percent of the Israeli public, Palestinian citizens of Israel are to be found throughout the country. They are primarily concentrated in the north, particularly the Galilee. These areas were either far from fighting in the 1947-48 war, or were not targets of concerted attacks by Jewish forces. Therefore, the Arabs in those areas did not flee and were not subjected to uprooting and expulsion.
The large majority of the 950,000 Arabs living in what became Israel in 1948 either fled or were displaced, but at the end of the war about 156,000 remained. They and their descendents are the Arab citizens of Israel. They lived under martial law until 1966, subject to a wide range of discriminatory laws and practices, including heavy travel restrictions, curfews, deportation and administrative detentions without due process. In the mid-60s, political and social space began to ease somewhat for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Martial law was lifted, although significant discrimination remained in certain sectors. Moreover, Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories in 1967 put this community in touch with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Before that, the Arabs of Israel had been almost entirely cut off from the rest of the Arab world. Due to both Israeli and Arab restrictions, not only was travel restricted, but even basic mail between Israel and the Arab world was not available. Wealthier off families were able to meet in Europe and other third-party destinations, but for the most part the Arabs of Israel found themselves completely cut off from their brethren in the rest of the Arab world.
The late 1960s also saw the rise of Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinian community in Israel supplied the national movement with its iconic poet, in the late Mahmoud Darwish, but he had to live in exile in order to fulfill that role, until the Oslo agreements allowed him to return, at least to the West Bank. Much of Darwish’s literary, and all of his political, activity was in contravention of Israel’s laws, which have traditionally suppressed expressions of Palestinian nationalism.
In the 1970s and 80s, however, there were numerous efforts on the part of Israel’s Palestinian citizens to increase their participation in the Israeli political system and empower themselves. These ran parallel to, and often sat uneasily with, a simultaneously complementary and contradictory impulse to be drawn towards the broader Palestinian national movement. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) began negotiating with Israel in the early 1990s, Chairman Yasser Arafat explicitly rejected the idea that issues involving Israel’s Palestinian citizens be drawn into the mix. He did not want to add further complications to the already difficult project of winning Palestinian statehood in the occupied territories.
This meant that, from the outset, the Palestinian community in Israel had an ambivalent relationship with the peace process.
On the one hand it represented their best hope for developing entirely new relationship with Jewish Israelis. Because Israel is an ethno-nationalist state dedicated to serving the interests of its Jewish citizens above all others, peace would not resolve all problems of discrimination against non-Jews in Israel. But the most severe problems facing Israel’s Arab citizens had always arisen from the fact that Israelis saw them as a potential fifth column in a conflict with Palestinians and other Arabs. If that conflict were resolved through the creation of a Palestinian state the question of a fifth column would not arise. Indeed, Israel’s Arabs could hope to be the country’s emissaries to the broader Arab world, and an asset to both rather than a liability to either.
On the other hand, as the peace process dragged on without resolving the conflict, not only were Palestinian citizens of Israel disillusioned, like so many others. They were also increasingly troubled that the gains made by Palestinians at the negotiating table would not address any of their long-standing concerns, and primarily addressed the problem of those living under occupation.
They began to seriously embrace Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to a project of communal empowerment within Israel, after an atrocity in October 2000, during the early days of the second intifada, when Israeli police killed 12Palestinian citizens of Israel, along with a Palestinian from Gaza, during a protest in support of the intifada. There had never been a similar incident involving Jewish citizens of Israel, and the experience solidified anger against the Israeli state and identification with the Palestinians living under occupation.
Tellingly, the primary response by the Palestinian citizens of Israel to the killings was a boycott of the 2001 Israeli election that helped Ariel Sharon defeat Ehud Barak and initiate Israel’s ongoing shift to the hawkish right on matters regarding security and the Palestinians.
In many ways, those who are citizens of Israel are a highly privileged segment of the Palestinian people, with much greater rights than those who are stateless people living under occupation or refugees. Yet they still face highly significant, and internationally unusual, levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity.
Most of these discriminatory realities arise from two primary features of Israeli life. First, in Israel, Jews and Arabs tend to live in their own areas. Some of the separation is codified through policies of the Jewish National Fund and other entities that control land and that either formally or informally make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to move into “Jewish” towns or neighborhoods. Given that communities live separately, it has been easy for the state to discriminate in terms of social spending on infrastructure, health, education and so forth.
Second, Israeli law distinguishes between citizenship (“Israeli”) and nationality (“Jewish,” “Arab,” and so forth). Some discrimination is based on designated “nationality,” giving preference to Jewish Israelis. Some of it derives from of the duties reserved to those who have performed National Service, which is true of almost all Jewish Israelis who are required to serve and not true of almost all Arabs who are not required—and in many cases not allowed—to perform such service, such as in the military.
In addition, a whole panoply of discrimination exists in Israel against Palestinian citizens, both formal and informal, that derives from the sense that this community is fundamentally disloyal to the state and sympathetic to its Arab enemies. Restrictions on Palestinian political participation in Israel have been eased over the decades, but in recent years, particularly since the return of. Netanyahu as prime minister, the Jewish right has been attempting to create new obstacles.
The “governance law” was a case in point, but so are proposed measures such as loyalty oaths, laws asserting or defining the “Jewish character” of the Israeli state, restrictions on the funding and activities of liberal or Arab NGOs, attempts to prohibit recognition of the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1947-48 or speech advocating boycotts against Israel or Israeli settlements. Among the most extraordinary restrictions is a law that prohibits Palestinians from the occupied territories or elsewhere who marry Palestinian citizens of Israel from moving to the country to live with their spouses.
All of these realities are manifestations of a deeper conundrum arising from the fact that this is a community of Arabs, most of whom identify as Palestinians, living in a “Jewish state” that has for most of its history been at war with most Palestinians and other Arabs. Israel’s Palestinians have, therefore, been viewed with suspicion by both sides, and not just Israelis. Arabs, too, have had a difficult time processing the reality of the Palestinian community of Israeli citizens.
Complicating the matter further is the growing phenomenon that further separates the question of Palestinian citizens’ rights in Israel from other aspects of the Palestinian cause and question. Some key right-wing figures in Israel, including current President Ruven Rivlin, and longtime right-wing activist Moshe Ahrens, are among the most outspoken Jewish Israeli proponents of equal rights for Palestinians, but are also categorically opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Neither man has explained precisely what his vision is for the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but both are on record as strong proponents of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.
In reality, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is surely essential for the long-term well-being of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nothing else frees them from the stigma and suspicion that otherwise clouds the way in which they are regarded by their Jewish compatriots in Israel. And nothing can make them more useful or dynamic contributors to achieving a two-state solution, which remains the only identifiable means of practically and viably resolving the conflict, than for this community to empower themselves within the Israeli political system. Perhaps their strongest asset is the fact that they can vote in Israel, and therefore have a direct, rather than an indirect (as is the case with most Palestinians), means of impacting Israeli-decision-making.
As things stand there is an inherently self-defeating quality to this new, unified and more powerful political organization. Even when the Zionist Union and Likud were running neck and neck in the polls at 27 each and the Joint List was projected to come in third with 14 or 15 seats, no one had identified them as the logical kingmakers in the aftermath of the balloting. That role was always, and still is, assigned to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu Party, which has a mere ten seats.
The simple fact is that an Arab political grouping like the Joint List would not be invited to join directly and formally with a ruling Israeli coalition government. Jewish Israelis would fear that the presence of a major Palestinian partner in a coalition government would undermine the credibility of that government. Israelis are simply not ready to accord their Arab citizens that much power. The Palestinian citizens of Israel, meanwhile, would almost certainly decline to join a coalition because of their objection to so much of Israel’s policies, particularly the occupation.
Even so, there have been countless Israeli politicians and parties that have categorically oppose the occupation and have nonetheless served in governments that persisted with it. They objected, but understood that they did not have the power, on their own, to end it. Arab parties in Israel are not yet ready to take that plunge. But if the List can sustain its coalition and continue to hold at least 14 seats or so in any given Knesset, over time its role will be difficult to ignore.
This is a new idea, one that everyone will have to get used to, especially as growth rates among Israeli citizens slightly favor Arab demographics over Jewish ones, 2.2 to 1.7 percent. Yet the deeper question is not the gradual development of a somewhat larger Arab minority within the internationally recognized boundaries of Israel. That question is, what of the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule but without the right to vote? If Netanyahu is correct, and Israel cannot and will not allow the creation of a Palestinian state, how long can it continue to forbid those millions from the right to participate in forming the government that rules them? If there is already, as the statistics suggest, a majority of non-Jews in the territories under direct Israeli control, and most of that constituency is disenfranchised and stateless, how long will that remain plausibly viable?
It’s easy enough to argue that the existing de facto “greater Israel” is already neither “Jewish” nor “democratic.” It’s not Jewish because it doesn’t have a Jewish majority already. And it’s not democratic because it denies millions of its permanent residents and de facto citizens the right to vote.
The performance of the Joint List should already be focusing Jewish Israeli attention on these questions. Because it raises the prospect not only of increased political power for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also the long-term potential of political power of those currently denied access to the ballot box. If this is a sobering prospect for Jewish Israelis, and it should be, the emergence of the Joint List itself begins to offer a way out. The List favors a two-state solution. So do the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. And so does a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories. For all of Netanyahu’s ill-conceived bluster, there is still a way out. But Israelis have just had a small preview of what’s possible if that prospect isn’t pursued with seriousness and vigor. Whether it is the gradual accumulation of power by the Palestinian citizens of Israel working together as a determined minority in the de jure Israel—or even the specter of the potential clout of an Arab majority in the de facto Israel—the Joint List is undoubtedly a harbinger of things to come.