Arab politician Ahmed Tibi addresses the press / Getty Images
The general mood in Israel, ahead of the second general election in just two years, is that little to nothing is going to change. Whether you’re an admirer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his sworn enemy, everybody agrees that his chances of a third reelection are good, and that his new government will be similarly composed of several medium-size parties with differing agendas. Another safe assumption is that it will fail to address people’s substantial concerns, chief among them the soaring cost of living.
Barring those on the left who are encouraged by the prospects of a Labor-led government recently moving from nonexistent to slim, most people see the 2015 elections as the most inconsequential in Israel’s recent history. For me, however, they are momentous. In these elections, I’m going to part with the party that has been my political home throughout my adult life.
The March 17 polling day will be the first that I won’t vote for Meretz, the decidedly left-wing, progressive, pro-human rights and anticlerical party. And it’s not because my views have changed or because they’ve done a poor job — on the contrary, especially since Zahava Galon took the leadership in 2011, they’ve been a steadfast and courageous mouthpiece for Israel’s beleaguered peace camp. In spite of all this, in these coming elections I have decided to cross the line, as it were, and, as an Israeli Jew, vote for the newly founded joint Arab list.
Israel’s 1.7 million Arabs — one in five Israelis — have been chronically underrepresented. Divided between mutually antipathetic parties, the Arab vote has always been cast to the wilderness of the opposition. No Arab party has ever been a member of any coalition — left, right or center. Judging from a recent statement made by Opposition Leader Isaac Hezog — that “all [coalition] partners are possible, from Meretz to Lieberman,” whereby he effectively ruled out the Arabs, preferring the ultranationalist foreign minister to them — this is not going to change.
What’s more, this week’s decision to run on a joint ticket was the result, not of a solemn sentiment of Arab unity, but of coercion. Last year, the government approved a series of election reforms, which became known as the “governability bill,” that significantly raised the electoral threshold. The smallest in the Knesset, the Arab parties would be the first victims of the reform, which was seen by many as an attempt by a nationalist government to brush them aside. For the Arab lawmakers, it was a “to be or not to be” emergency provision. This alone should usher a solidarity vote from any Israeli who’s committed to the participation of Israel’s largest ethnic minority in the democratic process.
The new list is made up of three parties with markedly different ideologies. So the fact that the unification successfully took place is almost a miracle, as it places members of the (formerly Communist) Jewish-Arab Hadash party together with members of the Islamic movement, as well as progressive integrationists together with Palestinian nationalists, some of who border on separatism.
At first glance, it actually seems unfair to impose a big-tent party on such a diverse electorate. But in fact, this will allow them to gloss over the all-too-paralyzing ideological differences and focus on their common goal: the promotion of minority rights, and a more pluralistic and multicultural, and less ethno-centrist, Israel. Knesset records have shown that the voting patterns of Arab lawmakers are strikingly similar; when it comes to their relationship with the Jewish majority, the Arabs — Communists and Islamists alike — are in the same boat.
The biggest challenge facing the new Arab slate — temporarily known as the “Joint List” — is to become a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics. Polls have shown that a single Arab party would boost voter participation among the Arabs, from about 50% today to around 70% (as opposed to an average of 65% among Jews). If that proves true, Arab representation in the Knesset might for the first time reflect the proportion of their constituency in decision-making circles.
The result? Potential prime ministers will have to either invite the Arab parties into their coalition, or face a sizable opposition. This will increase the confidence of Israel’s Arabs, foster their engagement in Israel’s buzzing democratic culture and, at the end of the day, serve as a catalyst for the normalization of the often acrimonious Jewish-Arab relations in this country.
And that’s exactly what any patriotic Israeli should aspire to.
Gilad Halpern is editor and broadcaster at tlv1.fm, Israel’s first fully English-language radio station.