Newly-Elected Arab Israelis May Gain More Clout in Parliament
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the September parliamentary elections, Arab Israelis made a significant dent in the years-long right-wing Netanyahu-Likud party domination. While a new government has not yet been formed, there is a chance the Arab parties may make a difference in whatever coalition is formed. This could mean a more effective representation of the Arab community and a possibly improved dialogue on outstanding problems of the inequities of Israeli Arabs, the occupation of the West Bank, increase in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and the issue of Jerusalem.
Parliamentary Stalemate pushes Israeli Parliament to the Brink
Israeli Arabs gained seats in Parliament in the September elections, giving them a point of leverage they previously haven’t had. The Arab alliance turned out to have the third-largest bloc in the Israeli Parliament, according to an Associated Press report. But with these gains “..the old dilemma for Israeli Arabs…” was revived, the AP reported. With its victory in hand, Arab alliance leader Ayman Odeh tweeted in Hebrew the ancient Psalm 118 from the Hebrew Bible, “…the stone which was rejected had become the cornerstone.” This was intended to imply not so subtly that Odeh’s alliance now had a possibly critical role to play in parliamentary negotiations.
Odeh’s message, which was delivered in Hebrew, was aimed at the more conservative, religiously-oriented members of Parliament. It was meant to suggest that the Arab community would now be better represented and thus able to have a more equitable position in society. Under the new electoral arrangement, according to the AP report, Odeh would be put in “…a strong position to become the first Arab opposition leader, an official role that would allow him to receive high-level security briefings and meet visiting heads of state.”
Israeli Arabs who won seats in Parliament comprise two parties, so-called (1) Arab nationalism and communism headed by Ayman Odeh and (2) Islamism and Arab nationalism headed by Mansour Abbas. These two parties include a total of 10 elected members or about 8% of the 120 total members of Parliament. Odeh has indicated he wants nothing to do with Netanyahu, much less his Likud party, but would cooperate with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party but would not join that coalition.
Arab Israeli Parliamentarians might broker a better position
Both Arab Israeli parties and the larger Arab Israeli community mistrust Netanyahu’s racist policies, namely those affecting Palestinians whose occupied West Bank territory has been invaded by more and more Jewish settlers, with no concern for Palestinian ownership of the land. They also resent his capricious transfer of the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, a city equally holy to all three major Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and the annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights into Israel. These latter two actions were done at the behest of the Trump administration.
Despite the potential of newfound political implications of the elections for Arab Israelis, their nine million citizens or 20% of the country’s population can never be certain of their status in a state that often treats them as second-class citizens. They feel they may gain some social advantages through legitimate participation in the parliamentary system, but fear they may be co-opted by the Jewish majority in Parliament and thus end up legitimizing the state that occupies their country of Palestine and their holy city of Jerusalem.
Still no Resolution of the Parliamentary Standoff
As of late last week, there was still no solution to the need to form a government. While Netanyahu’s Likud technically lost the election to the Blue and White party by one vote, the latter party did not have an obvious route to a majority. According to Newsweek,
“The Blue and White Party made it clear from the start that while they sought to create a coalition government with the Likud Party, they had one caveat — this Likud would need to be led by anyone but Netanyahu.” But Netanyahu cleverly moved to seal his coalition by having the parties of his alliance sign an agreement not to break ranks with Likud to join the Blue and White in a coalition. This gave him a significant block of 55 members.
Israeli President Rivlin has the authority to propose solutions to the parliamentary stalemate, which he has done. He proposed a national unity government with Netanyahu as Prime Minister and Gantz as deputy PM. This would allow the full authority to pass to Gantz while Netanyahu’s legal problems are dealt with. Again, Newsweek reported, “While Gantz expressed an interest in exploring this option, the other three co-heads of his party were very wary of the proposal. They fear that if left in power, Netanyahu would find a way to manipulate the agreement and remain in power indefinitely.”
The permutations on how this dilemma may be resolved are numerous and complicated. The feeling is that a solution will only occur at the last moment, at the very end of a 21-day period that is on Israel’s doorstep.
The part played by a large Arab Israeli vote in the September election seems to have paid off. The publication Haaretz predicted prior to the election that, due to a “wild intimidation factor” threatening Arabs, they would turn out in big numbers. Haaretz noted that Arabs would vote for either Arab-led or Jewish left-wing parties, thus making it more difficult for Netanyahu to form his ruling coalition. It is clearly the case that Arabs along with others have succeeded to this point in complicating Netanyahu’s plan to continue as PM—at least for the moment.
“Election Report,” Associated Press, Joseph Krauss, and Mohammed Daraghmeh, 9/29/19;
“The Netanyahu-Gantz Stalemate is testing Israeli Democracy to the Limit,” Newsweek, Marc Schulman, 10/4/19;
“Israel Election 2019: Israeli Arab Voter Turnout Up, Activists Say, Citing ‘Wild Intimidation’ Factor,” Haaretz, Judy Maltz, 9/17/19.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle
East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.