Israel election: Arab voters want voices heard, but not at any cost

Dina Kraft
Afu and Ruqaya Dawarshe stand outside their restaurant in the village of Iksal, Israel, Feb. 21, 2021. Ms. Dawarshe says Israeli Arabs' issues need to be heard "at the very top" of Israeli politics.
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As Israel goes to the polls Tuesday, Arab voters are being confronted with the outcome of their recent electoral successes. Amid competition for their support, they are wrestling with a growing desire to be part of the Israeli political process, even for the first time inside a government, but not necessarily at the price of abandoning principles or a sense of identity.

Mutual suspicions have meant Arab parties traditionally have been excluded from Jewish-led coalitions. But attitudes are changing. One survey found support among Jewish Israelis for an Arab party joining a governing coalition has grown from 35% to 49%, just since 2019. Another indicated that 46% of Arab citizens favored an Arab party joining a coalition if it benefited the Arab community.

Why We Wrote This

How inclusive is Israeli democracy? Ahead of Tuesday’s election, the support of Israeli Arab voters has been in high demand. But how ready are Jews and Arabs to be true political partners?

“These elections could likely be a milestone in the process of Arab integration into Israeli politics,” says Elie Rekhess, a visiting professor at Northwestern University. “The paradigm of exclusion seems to be disintegrating.”

Mohammad Dawarshe, who founded a centrist Arab political party in January, says it is time room is made for Israeli Arabs in the corridors of power. “We want in,” he says. “We want to be part of a future coalition in the State of Israel.”

In this village in the hills outside Nazareth that dates to biblical times, Afu and Ruqaya Dawarshe are settling their small restaurant’s accounts for the day while doing some political accounting as well.

“We are part of this country, no? So we too need a voice. Our issues need to be heard at the very top,” says Ms. Dawarshe, sitting with her husband at a table piled high with receipts and bills.

“The Jewish parties don’t always understand us and our needs. So we need an Arab party on the inside so our voice will go far.”

Why We Wrote This

How inclusive is Israeli democracy? Ahead of Tuesday’s election, the support of Israeli Arab voters has been in high demand. But how ready are Jews and Arabs to be true political partners?

But Ms. Dawarshe is wary of the prospect of an Arab-led party entering the government coalition at any price, especially with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud leader has pivoted from demonizing Arab citizens to courting them ahead of Tuesday’s election – an unprecedented fourth trip to the polls in just two years.

Her struggle reflects what the Arab sector as a whole – 21% of the population – is wrestling with: a growing desire to be part of the political process, even possibly inside a ruling coalition for the first time in Israeli history, but not necessarily at the price of abandoning principles and sense of identity.

Product of success

One reason the Arab community is even having this conversation is the electoral success demonstrated by a coalition of Arab parties, the Joint List, in recent rounds of national voting.

Mansour Abbas, leader of Ra’am, a conservative Islamist party with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement, is the surprise figure testing these conflicting trends within his own community in this election.

He has said he is open to working with anyone in the messy business of coalition building, even Mr. Netanyahu or other right-wing Jewish party leaders, in exchange for their committing to the issues important to the Arab minority.

The previous three elections ended in deadlock, followed by weak coalitions that quickly collapsed, providing an opening for Ra’am to play the role of coalition kingmaker and for Jewish-led parties from across the political spectrum to seek out Arab votes.

Meanwhile the Arab public is reeling from a double crisis: a surge in violent crime and the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, making the overtures from Jewish politicians offering help more acceptable to some, observers say.

While complications persist, an evolution in Arabs’ and Jews’ attitudes toward the Israeli democratic process and each other appears to be underway.

“These elections could likely be a milestone in the process of Arab integration into Israeli politics,” says Elie Rekhess, an expert on Arab society and a visiting professor of Israel studies at Northwestern University. “The paradigm of exclusion seems to be disintegrating.”

Increased integration

Arab parties traditionally have been excluded from Jewish-led coalitions because of their anti-Zionist views and questions regarding their loyalty, specifically how they would handle security issues. For their part, Arab parties have been wary of being part of a government, in part out of concern their presence would be taken as support for harsh policies toward their Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza.

But the shifts in attitudes in the political arena follow a new level of integration by Arabs in the country’s economy, working together with Jewish citizens in hospitals and high-tech firms, and studying in the same classes in universities.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Likud supporters with campaign posters depicting the party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, march through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, March 19, 2021.

The pandemic may also be playing a role in shifting the conversation. It was the first national emergency Israel faced that was not part of the broader, regional conflict, and Israeli Arab doctors and nurses were on the front line.

Stories and images of Arab nurses reciting Jewish prayers or performing other final rituals with dying ultra-Orthodox patients whose family could not visit them were shared on social media. In one ad campaign, doctors fighting the pandemic asked not to be forgotten when it came time to include Arab citizens at the political decision-making table.

Mohammad Dawarshe, who founded the first centrist Arab political party in January with the goal of working with Jewish centrist parties, says that just as Jewish society made room for Arabs in medicine and other professions it was time room was also made in the corridors of power.

“I think that the culture that needs to be created in the State of Israel needs to be an inclusive culture and creation,” Mr. Dawarshe says in an interview. “I put this as a challenge [to Israel] to say if you are a responsible majority and not just a technical majority, then you need to create space for me.”

The Abbas gambit

After the last election, in which it won the third most seats in parliament, the Joint List made history as the first Arab party to recommend that a Jewish party form the next government. But it was shaken by what it saw as a betrayal by Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, who joined Mr. Netanyahu in a unity government, and the reverberations weakened the internal cohesion of the Joint List.

Mr. Abbas pulled his party out of the Joint List. His party is projected on Tuesday to win four seats, the Joint List nine.

“There is a positive in our increased power; the issue is how do we organize this power that we have?” says Muhammed Khalaily, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

He compares Mr. Abbas’ transactional approach to that of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which for decades have eschewed ideology to secure policies and funding that help their community.

“He is saying we are playing sectoral politics – it does not matter what the prime minister’s agenda is as long as we get what we want,” says Mr. Khalaily.

Yet he has no faith in any right-wing government delivering on promises to the Arab population after the election: “The right in Israel rose to power on putting Arabs down. It’s an exclusive club that is not prepared to accept Arab citizens … and Netanyahu is the architect of this approach.”

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Protesters participate in a weekly demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's alleged corruption and his handling of the pandemic, in Jerusalem, March 20, 2021.

As Mr. Netanyahu courts Arab voters, promising that only he has the political weight to deliver, he has been traveling the country from the Galilee to the Negev Desert.

In a speech in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city, he promised a “new era of Jewish-Arab relations … an age of honor and equality, an age of opportunities and an age of power.”

Yet soon after he spoke, a protest broke out with demonstrators saying he was not welcome in the city and blaming him for oppressive policies that hurt Arab citizens. Mr. Netanyahu is also courting a far-right alliance, one of whose candidates advocates expelling Arab citizens deemed disloyal.

Shifts in thought

A survey of the Israeli public commissioned by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, found that since 2019, support among Jewish Israelis for an Arab party joining a governing coalition rose from 35% to 49%, including from 19% to 31% among those who identify as right wing.

Meanwhile, 46% of the Arab citizens surveyed by the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at Tel Aviv University said an Arab party should join any coalition that is formed after the elections if it benefits the Arab community, while 18% said they would only agree to joining a center-left coalition, and 13% rejected joining any government or supporting it from outside the coalition.

Nevertheless, Raef Zreik, an expert in political philosophy and co-director of the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University, does not think Arab and Jewish citizens are on the verge of a breakthrough.

“Politics is always about taking risks. I take one step; you take one step. But we are not there,” says Dr. Zreik.

Citing laws like the 2018 Nation State law, which defines Israel as a Jewish state foremost, he concludes: “We are marching in the opposite direction. Israel is becoming more Jewish and less democratic.”

Mohammad Dawarshe, however, says he refuses “to be on the passive side, waiting for someone to determine what the policy toward us is going to be.”

He endorsed the Joint List after withdrawing his fledgling party just days before the election when it became clear it would not clear the threshold for parliament.

“We want in. We want to be part of a future coalition in the State of Israel,” he says.

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