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.
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.
But a temporary setback occurred when the leadership of the Islamic Movement, a moderate Islamist organization that recognizes the State of Israel and rejects violence, voted in June of 1995 not to field candidates in Knesset elections, despite the wishes of its leader, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish.
The Islamic Movement's leadership did, however, take a step in the direction of participation by lifting its ban on voting in national elections. It also expressed support for the effort to form a united Arab list.
Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Israeli Arab leader and adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, was the primary force behind the unity movement. His newly formed party, the Arab Movement for Change, joined forces in early March with the Progressive List for Peace, led by Ahmed Darweesh, and the Islamic Arab List led by Sheikh Aatef Hatib.
Within seven weeks, he brought two other critical parties into the fold: the Arab Democratic Party and the Islamic Movement. The Islamic Movement's decision to participate in the Arab coalition after all seems to have been a direct result of Mr. Tibi's successful efforts at pulling together a number of other Arab groups. His achievement may have persuaded other key members of the Islamic Movement to support Knesset candidacies.
This unity, if successfully maintained, along with an expected increase in Arab turnout, could give Arabs as many as four additional Knesset seats in next month's elections.
Peres, as Rabin before him, has in the past had to rely on Arab votes to pass Knesset decisions on issues related to the peace process. Indeed, Peres has had to weather charges from the right that he is not able to govern with a Jewish majority alone. Additional Arab parliamentary seats are likely to force Peres further against the wall in this regard, but he has clearly recognized the importance of this constituency to the continuation of the peace process and to his own political survival.
In a new era of invigorated presence and activism in Israeli politics, Arabs could also provoke an expanded debate in Israel about the political and cultural role of non-Jewish minorities in Israeli society. With their increased political leverage, Israeli Arabs will be able to shine a spotlight on the discrimination faced by their community.
Half of Israeli Arabs live below the poverty line, and very few Arabs make it into the top echelons of government and industry. Unequal development in Arab towns and villages in comparison with Jewish areas has caused deep resentment and awareness of Arabs' second-class status in a Jewish state, whose state symbols - the national anthem, the flag - remain exclusively Jewish. Arabs have protested land and housing policies - including land expropriations as well as leasing and building rules - that have severely affected Arabs and favored Jews.
At a time when Palestinian-Israeli relations are being transformed by the peace process, the new political activism of the Israeli Arabs will begin a transformation in Arab-Israeli relations. If Israel's citizens engage in this important debate, they may open the door to a truly comprehensive peace - within Israel's borders and without.