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Arab voters just rescued Israel’s democracy

The votes from Monday’s Israeli election are in, and there seems to be clarity about at least one thing: how many seats each party will have in the next Knesset. Beyond that, everything else is up in the air regarding Israel’s political future. Will Benjamin Netanyahu, who used his usual mix of fear-mongering, bravado, and cleverness to turn the polls around in the last two weeks, be able to climb from 58 mandates (from the bloc of right-wing parties) to the magic number of 61 to gain a majority in the Knesset? How will his corruption trial on March 17 affect his prospects for forging a governing coalition? If he fails, will Israel be headed to a fourth round of elections in a year?

These questions arise in the midst of an especially unsettling period of Israel, and global, politics. Xenophobia, vilification of opponents, and anti-democratic gestures mark the age, as those in charge push forward a doctrine of majoritarianism that marginalizes minorities, immigrants, and the already disenfranchised. Netanyahu has elevated this politics to a high art form, particularly with respect to Israel’s Arab minority, one-fifth of the country’s population, whose political representatives he constantly casts as enemies of the state. Just recently, as Netanyahu negotiated with his right-wing partners in an attempt to build a governing coalition, he declared that “The Arabs are not part of this equation, because this is the will of the people.” Unfortunately, this exclusionary rhetoric is not limited to him. Even his chief rival, the centrist Benny Gantz of the Blue White party, declared in the run-up to this election that he would not join forces in a governing coalition with the leading Arab party, the Joint List.

But herein may lie a glimmer of hope in this otherwise dark chapter in Israeli politics: Not only has the Joint List gained seats since its debut in 2015, moving from 13 to 15 today, but the trend of declining Arab voter turnout has been reversed. From a peak of 90% in the mid-1950, Arab voter participation fell to 49% in the April 2019 elections. In the subsequent September elections, that figure rose to 59%, and now in March 2020, it has risen again to more than 64%. Counterintuitively, as expressions of race-baiting and intolerance mount, Palestinian citizens of Israel have chosen to push back and join the fray to assert their voice and rights.

This is an encouraging sign for democracy in Israel. It is also encouraging that one hears more and more talk in Israel of the ideal of a robust Arab-Jewish partnership, especially but not only in progressive circles. Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List and one of the country’s few politicians to articulate a forward-looking vision, advocates passionately in both Arabic and Hebrew for the interests of his fellow Palestinian Israelis. But he also insists that “cooperation between people, Arab and Jewish, is the only principled political strategy that will lead to a better future for us all.”

The language of an Arab-Jewish partnership may sound vague and amorphous, but it has real significance. It comes in the wake of a number of important linguistic and conceptual shifts in Israeli political culture, beginning with the idea of a Jewish and democratic state. Though not explicitly mentioned in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence from 1948, this formulation received political validation when the Knesset passed the Basic Law on Human Liberty and Dignity in 1992, which declared “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Since that time, there has been a swing of the pendulum away from that proposed equilibrium to the Jewish side of the equation. Thus, the Knesset’s Nation State Law of 2018 failed to mention democracy at all and defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, without any reference to the Arab minority.

It is in this context that the idea of a genuine partnership between Jews and Arabs assumes force. The term implies a democratic order in which the Jewish majority and the Arab minority are full and equal shareholders in political, economic, and social life. Each has the right to preserve its distinctive culture, while at the same time participating fully in a shared civic space.

To achieve this ideal, the state would have to decide to reallocate its resources, which currently favor the Jewish majority in disproportionate fashion. The good news is, this has already begun: In 2015, after a campaign by civil society organizations and political figures, the Israeli government approved a plan to direct billions of shekels to the Arab sector.

The political culture would also have to change so that it would be unacceptable for a major party leader to maintain ever again that s/he would not enter a coalition with an Arab party. Far from being unpatriotic, that kind of enfranchisement would mark the long-deferred realization of Israel’s own Proclamation of Independence that calls for “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

David N. Myers is the Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA and serves as President of the Board of the New Israel Fund. Daniel Sokatch is the CEO of the New Israel Fund.

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