A United Jewish-Arab Left?

There was a lively discussion at the Facebook page of veteran peace activist Gershon Baskin, when he referenced a +972 article (“Meretz facing internal pressure to become Jewish-Arab party“) on the debate within Meretz as to whether it should again attempt to unite with Labor, an effort spurned during the recent campaign by Labor Party chair Avi Gabbay (probably to be unseated in an upcoming leadership contest) or whether its future is better served by an electoral alliance with the Hadash party and possibly its current moderate nationalist ally, Ta’al.  This question renews a recurrent theme on the Israeli left of incorporating Arab citizens of Israel more equitably into Israel’s political system without necessarily undermining Israel’s Jewish/Zionist character. 

Meretz has maintained its credentials as Zionist, continuing to participate as the left edge of Israel’s old Zionist institutions — the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund.  But the Meretz party platform attempts to resolve the contradiction which leftist purists see between Israel’s Jewish nature and its professed commitment to liberal democracy by envisioning Israel as both “Jewish” (in terms of the majority’s heritage and culture) and “a state of all its citizens.” 

This past April, two of Meretz’s top five candidates for the Knesset were Arab, with one being a sitting MK who was reelected and the other a prominent Druze educator who narrowly missed when the party only got enough votes for four.  This time, Israeli-Arab voters constituted nearly one quarter of the Meretz total and were decisive in getting the party barely over the 3.25% electoral threshold at 3.63%.  

It was pointed out by some at Baskin’s Facebook page that Hadash, which supports a two-state solution and has, as is its custom, one Jewish MK among its current total of six, has rebuffed the idea in the past of joining electorally with Meretz (rejecting Meretz for its “Zionism”).  But the broader center-left faces a dilemma that seems baked into the math of aspiring to lead a government once again: it cannot hope to get a majority coalition without including at least one Israeli-Arab party.  This is a reality which both predominantly Jewish and Arab parties shy away from, including the new lead opposition group, Blue-White/Kahol Lavan, and even the more moderate of the two Arab groups, Hadash-Ta’al.  At the moment, Meretz needs Arab voters to stay alive; whether or not it can finally ally with Hadash, this small party may be Israel’s greatest hope to bridge its ethnic divide and lay the groundwork for a new center-left coalition government.  

Both this hope and the challenge were fully on display in the planning and execution of last Saturday night’s massive anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv, with resistance from Kahol Lavan leaders reversed in the last minute to include MK Ayman Odeh, the leader of Hadash.  This is from Chemi Shelev’s report in Haaretz, May 26 (“In the Face of Netanyahu’s Threat to Democracy, Israel’s Opposition Makes Rare Show of Unity“):

An overflow crowd of close to 100,000, which exceeded the most optimistic expectations, came to see the leaders of the opposition parties standing together and speaking in one voice, after trying to avoid each other like the plague during the election campaign.

From Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and his partner Yair Lapid — who received the warmest welcome — through Labor’s Avi Gabbay and Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, all the way to the surprise star of the show, Ayman Odeh of the predominantly Arab Hadash-Ta’al party, the speakers were more impassioned and their message sharper and more aggressive than in the past. Their audience, meanwhile, seemed angrier and more animated than ever, at least by the standards of the mostly well-to-do Tel Avivians who took part. The performance proved the veracity of the traditional right-wing slogan “Only Bibi can” — in this case injecting life into the hitherto moribund opposition.

But the importance of the demonstration wasn’t the fact it was held, but rather in the tense 24 hours that preceded it — when a vigorous left-wing campaign on social media compelled the Kahol Lavan organizers to issue a last-minute invitation to Odeh to participate. The vision of a joint Jewish-Arab front — the long-held dream of the Israeli left — suddenly came to life, at least for one night.

It was Odeh’s appearance that electrified the crowd, convincing hundreds if not thousands of left-wing activists not to boycott it because of his absence. The endemic division of the Israeli left, a product of that political wing’s well-known purism and fractiousness as well as the inherent tension in the relations between Arabs and Jews, dissipated into thin air.

Photo Credit: Ilan Assayag