AS Israelis and Palestinians continue to clash in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, another Palestinian population - the Arab citizens of Israel - may well determine Israel's next government at the voting booths in November. This year, Israeli Arabs are likely to elect 14 members of the Knesset, more than 10 percent of the 120-member parliament. For the first time in Israeli history, the Arabs can elect some of these members from their own independent party, the Democratic Arab Party.
This party is headed by Abdul Wahab Darawshe, the charismatic and outspoken Israeli Arab leader who, until last January, was the sole Arab member representing Labor. The new party seeks to attract Arab voters who in 1984 supported Labor, the Communists (a combined Jewish-Arab list led by a Jew), and the Progressive List for Peace (PLP, a combined Jewish-Arab list led by an Arab). The Democratic Arab Party also hopes to attract the 50,000 young Israeli Arabs who will be voting for the first time.
Appealing for support in the Arab community in recent months, Mr. Darawshe has asserted that the way for Arab citizens to exert influence on Israeli policy is through their own political party, one prepared to participate in a Labor-led coalition government.
Some view the creation of the Democratic Arab Party as another indication of the radicalization of the Israeli Arab community. It would be more realistic to recognize this new party as a sign of the political maturation of Israel's Arab community. An Arab coalition partner in the government would itself demonstrate that a partnership between Israel's Arab and Jewish citizens is tangible.
The question is whether Israelis, both Arab and Jewish, are ready for such a dramatic development. Are they ready for the participation of an Arab party in the government and the possible appointment of an Arab to the Cabinet? Both the success of the Democratic Arab Party's appeal to Arab voters and the response of other parties, in particular Labor, could determine the future course of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
Israel's 700,000 Arab citizens - those Palestinian Arabs who have resided within the pre-1967 borders since the founding of the state 40 years ago - today make up some 18 percent of the country's population. Seventy-three percent of Israeli Arab voters participated in the 1984 election.
With such potential political clout, Israeli Arabs might be expected to exert more influence. Like their Jewish counterparts, however, the Arab community is fragmented. Divided along family and village lines, Israeli Arabs have been unable to form a national movement that can advocate their concerns. Thus, an increase in the number of Arabs sitting in the Knesset from the present seven is doubtful, at least in the short term.
Although most parties made a special effort in the 1984 campaign to reach out to this increasingly important pool of voters, the results indicated that Arab citizens were growing more alienated. For the first time in the country's history a majority of Arabs voted for non-Zionist parties, as the Communists and the PLP garnered 51 percent of the Arab vote.
That shift in Arab voting patterns should have signaled Israel's political leaders that Arab concerns demand more attention. During the past four years, however, little has been done by the ``national unity'' government to address the economic and social inequalities between Israel's Arab and Jewish communities.
In 1984 Labor probably could have formed a government if it had invited the Communists or PLP to join the coalition. To avoid the serious political repercussions of forging an alliance with either of those fringe parties, Labor entered into the present coalition with Likud.
This year Labor could avoid the outcry from not only Meir Kahane but other politicians on the right opposed to Arab participation in the political process by negotiating a continuation of the national-unity government. But a renewal of the current two-headed government would only bring continued stalemate on critical issues. Moreover, rejection of the Democratic Arab Party would send a clear message to Israeli Arabs that their efforts to gain acceptance as participants in the country's political system at its highest levels are in vain.
Darawshe and his supporters face formidable challenges. They must convince the Jewish community that the Democratic Arab Party is indeed different from the Communists and PLP, which have been tainted by their competition to demonstrate ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization. They must persuade the Arab community that an increase in votes for those two parties would help ensure a victory by Likud, which, together with its rightist and religious allies, might form a coalition that could further alienate the Arab minority.
They must assure Arab voters that shifting support to an Arab party that may have a role in the next government will not only be welcomed by Labor, but will also lead to real changes in government policy, especially on their domestic concerns.
Israeli Arabs and Jews have an opportunity this year to vote for a positive change that will lead toward establishing a true partnership. If Labor wins enough seats in the Knesset to form a coalition and the Democratic Arab Party is a part of it, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel will improve, and that could only benefit the future development of Israeli society.
Kenneth Bandler, a Middle East specialist, is director of public information at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.