In Israel’s latest legislative elections held on March 23 (the fourth election in two years), a turning point happened within the Knesset, the country’s parliament and legislative body. A solo Arab political party, Ra’am, managed to win four seats in the Knesset. Ra’am is a breakaway from the traditional Joint List, a combination of now four Israeli Arab political parties, which has predominately represented the interests of Israeli Arabs.
With Israeli Arabs forming 21 percent of the population, the significance of this win cannot be dismissed. It’s a development that allows a single new Arab party to play a more decisive role independently within the new Israeli coalition, by either joining it or backing it from a distance.
As such, the major political parties from Labor to Likud (the latter being the party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) have also begun approaching Ra’am to form needed alliances in order to ensure a sustainable government. This is especially significant as until recently, no Arab-led party has ever participated in Israel’s government coalitions before.
Yet while the win is indeed noteworthy, the potential for this party to improve the situation for Israeli Arabs will likely remain limited at best. This is due to the lack of political will from the majority of the government – on both the left and right – as well as total distrust of Israeli Arabs as politicians, which will make any advancement that the Arab party tries to achieve nearly futile.
“Second Class” Citizens
Estimated at 1.9 million citizens (over a fifth of the Israeli population), Israeli Arabs are a diverse group consisting not just of Muslims, but of Christians and other religious sects such as the Druze.
Israeli Arabs are the Palestinians that remained in Israel following the founding of the Jewish State, in exchange for rights and Israeli citizenship. This was a fate different from those Palestinians that fled following what is called el Nakbah, or “the disaster,” leaving a total of five million Palestinian refugees stateless to this day.
Despite citizenship in Israel, Israeli Arabs are greatly marginalized within society and government.
Despite citizenship in Israel, Israeli Arabs are greatly marginalized within society and government. Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews tend to live in complete segregation from each other, with many cities in Israel either solely Arab (like Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ) or solely Jewish, with few exceptions such as Haifa in the north.
Moreover, cultural fixtures have rendered it difficult for Israeli Arabs to fully “integrate” in Israeli society, with the biggest obstacle being participation in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Enlisting in the IDF is compulsory for all Israeli citizens, but Israeli Arabs have been given the choice to opt out in order to avoid taking part in potential violence against other Arabs, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza.
However, what seemed to be a bout of compassion from the government, turned out to be a catch-22 for Israeli Arabs. Given that the majority, if not all employment in Israel, requires completion of military service, Israeli Arabs who choose to not take part have ended up with little job prospects.
With Israel gaining clout as a “Start-up Nation,” particularly in the tech industry, this leaves out Israeli Arabs from taking part in Israel’s success story, with only 2.5 percent of Israeli Arabs managing to actually work within the tech sector. Indeed, many tech innovations and skills are obtained and learned via military participation.
Investment, protection, and development for the Israeli Arab community have also been painfully inadequate from the Israeli state. Despite consistent population growths and a higher fertility rate than the general Jewish population (with the exception of the Haredi community which is roughly the same), the government has systematically underfunded Israeli Arab communities.
Eight out of ten Israel’s poorest cities are Arab, and according to the Association for Israeli Civil Rights, Israeli Arab cities lack urban master plans and infrastructure in comparison to predominately Jewish cities. Furthermore, Arab homes are frequently demolished by authorities for being built without government approval – mainly because of routine denials of permits and lack of plans. Israeli Arabs are also among the poorest in Israel, earning 37 percent less compared to Israeli Jews.
Although the lack of investment within the Israeli Arab community may be attributed to the absence of Arab voices within parliament, Israeli Arabs were always represented and have been included in the first Knesset since 1949.
In 2015, a broad alliance of both Arab and Arab-Jewish parties (the Joint List) was formed, becoming the primary representation for the Arab minority. High points include winning 13 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset in 2015, making it the third largest bloc in the parliament for the first time—a historical first. But despite these wins, the coalition could barely pass legislation to protect the rights and status of Israeli Arabs.
The ultimate sign of their ineffectiveness came in 2018 when the Joint List could neither stop nor block the Knesset from passing the Nation State Law.
Formally known as the Basic Law, the act diminished the role of the Arabic language and enshrined Jewish supremacy, making the Israeli State to be solely for the Jewish people, further excluding Israeli Arabs. With the Joint List not powerful enough to block such a huge blow to the constituents it was meant to represent, an Israeli Arab political party such as Ra’am can hardly improve the situation.
Formally known as the Basic Law, the act diminished the role of the Arabic language and enshrined Jewish supremacy.
Indeed, never before has the lack of political will within the Jewish Knesset been more blatant. While Ra’am has won four seats, the three elections that have taken place over the past two years demonstrate that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has become increasingly more extremist and anti-Arab.
The March 23 vote saw Netanyahu’s right-wing and hardliner Likud party winning the majority of the 120 seats within the Knesset – a total of 30, with the more left-wing Labor party of Mirav Michiali gaining only seven, and the centrist party of Benny Gantz, Blue and White, securing just eight seats.
The second largest numbers of seats were won by Yair Lapid’s centrist party Yesh Atid (“There is a Future” in Hebrew”) getting 17. Lapid even made hopeful comments before Ra’am’s win, stating he was more than happy to collaborate with the Arab Joint List in forming a new government coalition. However, this was immediately counteracted by Netanyahu – chairman of the Likud party, who refused to uphold such possibility, thus harkening the mood from the majority. In fact, hardliner rabbis have already been advising Likud members against any inclusion of Ra’am.
While Yesh Atid is more centralist in its approach towards negotiating with Palestinians and the inclusion of Israeli Arabs within society, the majority of the Knesset still retain divisive and supremacist views on Israeli identity, upholding the idea of a solely Jewish State as codified by the Nation State Law. Across party lines, both Likud and other hardliner party members have historically refused to even acknowledge Israeli Arab coalitions as legitimate members of the Knesset, deeming them inferior.
Moreover, Israeli Arab politicians have also lost the trust of their own constituents – the Israeli Arabs. This past election saw an all-time low participation and dwindling over the years – only 37 percent of Israeli Arabs turned out to vote. The lack of faith Israeli Arabs have in their representatives is exacerbated by the perception that they are sell-outs who promote their own self-interest rather than those of the collective. Thus, with Israeli Arabs unable to respect Arab politicians in the Knesset, there is little chance for the rest of the legislative body to do so.
Where There’s a Will
Though Ra’am is unlikely to be effective at any level, there are other voices that can uphold the rights and interests of the Israeli Arabs. Civil society groups and start-ups such as Tsofen – advocating for greater inclusion of Israeli Arabs in the Israeli tech space – and the Association for Israeli Civil Rights – fighting for equal rights for all Israeli citizens, especially Israeli Arabs – will prove to be a far greater force. These groups can not only mobilize support from the general population of Israeli Jews, but also encourage policies and legislation that uphold Israeli Arab causes.
Many civil society groups bring significant clout when speaking directly with Jewish politicians, due to their coinciding interests in the rights of Israeli Jews as well. Employing diplomatic skill and negotiation, civil society groups can be instrumental in making more developmental gains than the political coalitions have.
Civil society groups can be instrumental in making more developmental gains than the political coalitions have.
Tsofen, for example, has a goal of increasing the Israeli Arab workforce in tech by at least 10 percent. The organization has shown to be effective in promoting this initiative, through working with the Israeli government to consider the benefits of diversity and inclusion on behalf of the entire community.
Another organization, Hand in Hand, which advocates for greater presence of Arabs and Jews in education, has spent years building relations between Jewish and Arab society via inclusive schooling and bilingual education. Hand in Hand works closely with city administrators and the Israeli Ministry of Education to advance policy and programs which build tolerance and take into consideration the unique obstacles Israeli Arabs face on a daily basis, especially within education.
While the Ra’am party’s win within the Knesset is a first for a lone Arab party to independently play a more active role within the Israeli Coalition, it would be wishful thinking to assume it will have any impact in the lives of everyday Israeli Arabs. If real change is to happen, it won’t come from within the Knesset, but from voices and groups among society who are committed to creating genuine transformation.