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Unity Among Israel's Arabs Could Lead to New Clout

By Riva Richmond. Riva Richmond is program associate for Muslim politics at the Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed in this article are her own. / May 15, 1996



The Israeli Arab minority is poised to become a major player in Israeli power politics. For the first time, the Arabs have formed a coalition of parties to run as a single list in this month's elections. If they maintain this unity, they may finally generate influence equal to the size of their constituency, nearly one-fifth of the Israeli population.

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In addition, the May 29 elections are the first in which the prime minister will be directly elected. This change, combined with increased Arab participation in Israeli politics, may have extremely important implications.

Arab participation could help determine the shape of the next government and may significantly affect the course of the peace process and Israel's relations with its neighbors. It would almost certainly spark a renewed and contentious debate reaching to the heart of what Israel is and what it means to be an Israeli.

Until the recent violence in Lebanon, the vast majority of Arabs were expected to support Shimon Peres for prime minister. The deaths of Lebanese civilians spurred violent demonstrations in Nazareth and calls by Israeli Arab leaders to withhold support for Mr. Peres by leaving ballots for prime minister blank. But there is still time for Peres to win over the Arabs, and both sides stand to gain from a reconciliation.

In fact, increased Arab clout has already been felt. In a move to regain Arab support, Peres announced May 8 that he would appoint an Arab minister to his Cabinet, a historic first. He also said that he would probably release the leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in response to the United Arab List's demands.

New electoral math

Indeed, the new electoral system may help the Israeli Arabs maximize their power, if they support Peres for prime minister and the United Arab List for Knesset. If Peres wins, he could owe his victory to the Arabs, and he might also be forced to include the List in his coalition government.

The Arab vote up to now has been divided between a wide array of parties, including Arab parties such as the Arab Democratic Party; joint Jewish and Arab leftist parties, such as Hadash and the Progressive List for Peace; the Jewish-led leftist Meretz and Labor parties; and, in small numbers, Zionist parties farther to the right.

Of the nine Arabs currently in the Knesset, two are from the Arab Democratic Party, two from Hadash, three from Labor, one from Meretz, and one from Likud. But these seats represent just over 7% of the 120 Knesset seats, while Arabs represent 17% of the Israeli population. This lack of adequate representation reflects a history of Arab divisions based on religious, regional, ideological, and personal differences.

The 1993 Oslo accord, however, changed that. Arab community interests began to converge after this historic agreement, as most Israeli Arabs found in it the impetus to unify around support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as achievement of equal rights in Israel.

In May 1995, Israeli Arab leaders persuaded the government to reverse a controversial decision to expropriate Arab land in East Jerusalem. This demonstration of political clout lifted spirits and boosted efforts to rally together, again, in a bid to increase the number of Arab-held Knesset seats in this year's elections. A special committee was formed, headed by Arab Democratic Party Knesset member Taleb a-Sanaa, to encourage a dialogue among Arab political groups and to attempt to form a united list on the Meretz model.