Leader of Joint List party, Ayman Odeh casts his ballot in Haifa together with his sons as Israelis voted in a national election March 2.

Israel’s Arabs stand up for equality

Their high voter turnout in an election, winning them a record number of seats in parliament, reveals a new yearning for equality as a minority.

In its latest global report, Freedom House notes the many pro-democracy protests last year were a reminder of “the universal yearning for equality.” For 2020, the think tank need not look far for a fresh example of this yearning. On March 2, Israel held an election in which its Arab citizens, about 20% of the population, suddenly awoke to their rights of equality.

Long demonized by Israel’s right wing as a threat to the mainly Jewish state, Arab voters flocked to the polls in numbers not seen in 21 years. A political alliance of four Arab parties, known as the Joint List, also set a record for its representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

As the third-largest group in the Knesset, the 15 Joint List members – up from 13 – may now have a chance to influence the horse-trading politics expected in forming the next government. Such influence would be unusual in Israel’s 71-year history. In the election, no party won enough seats in the 120-seat chamber to form a majority. In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, is facing the start of a trial for corruption on March 17.

Pundits described the Arab turnout as a political earthquake for Israel. Nearly two-thirds of Israeli Arabs showed up to vote compared with fewer than half in an election last April. An estimated 20,000 Jewish citizens also voted for the Joint List, partly in solidarity against the verbal attacks against Arabs.

Many more Israeli Arabs decided to vote this time because of the racist undertone in the campaign. They also worry about a part of President Donald Trump’s proposed peace plan that calls for some 20 Arab towns and villages to “become part of the State of Palestine.” A large majority of Israeli Arabs prefer to stay in Israel.

In the context of the Middle East, with its half-democracies and nondemocracies, this surge in the Arab vote sets a model for minorities peacefully asserting their legitimacy as full-fledged citizens. Equality is not just something given. It is also something realized, especially in a region whose religions teach that God created all with equal liberty. Israeli Arabs, in reimagining their role as citizens, have grasped that reality.

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