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Jews & Arabs Ally in Tel Aviv Elections

By TTN

On October 30, Israel held its municipal elections across the country.  This post is based upon a PPI blog/Israel Horizons piece by Hillel Schenker, currently a co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal and a former chair of Democrats Abroad – Israel.  He reported on those elections, with a focus upon what transpired in his hometown of Tel Aviv.  

This was a three-way race between progressive slates, with the longtime Labor incumbent mayor, Ron Huldai, being reelected.  Likud actually lost ground with a paltry finish of one seat on the 31-member municipal council, down from two.  But what inspired Schenker’s imagination was the level of success of a joint Jewish-Arab list, even as he is cognizant of how difficult it is to achieve a significant level of cooperation on the national level:

The most interesting of the candidates was Assaf Harel, son of the late Labor Party (very) dovish Knesset Member Aharon Harel, who was active in the International Center for Peace in the Middle East and later Executive Director of the Beit Berl Kibbutz Seminary and College. Assaf Harel became well-known for his biting and highly critical opening monologues on his late night show . . . .

What was particularly interesting about Harel is that he put together a joint Jewish-Arab list for the city council, called Anachnu Ha’ir (We are the City). All of their campaign posters and slogans appeared in Hebrew and Arabic, a clear provocation to the new Nation-State Law, which demoted Arabic from its status as an ‘official’ language to an undefined “special status.” The list also contained many Arab activists from Jaffa, as well as Jewish social activists from ‘south Tel Aviv’ (a code phrase for Mizrachim), alongside progressive Jews from the central and north Tel Aviv ( i.e., Ashkenazim).

Harel received a respectable 15% of the vote, and elected 4 members to the City Council – Harel himself; #2 Jaffa lawyer and activist Amir Badran; #3 South Tel Aviv neighborhood social activist Shula Keshet, a leading defender of African migrant workers; and #4 Moriah Shlomot, a former Executive Director of Peace Now.  . . .

The appearance and initial success of the joint Jewish-Arab “We Are the City” list in Tel Aviv raises the question of whether the future of progressive politics in Israel can be based on joint Jewish-Arab cooperation. A civil society movement called “Omdim Beyahad”, (Standing Together), has had a prominent role in most recent demonstrations against racism and for peace. One of the most popular slogans at these demonstrations is “Jews and Arabs Refuse to be Enemies”, also held aloft by members of Meretz and Hadash.

However, the challenge is to channel this cooperation into the political sphere, and while it appeared to work in Tel Aviv-Jaffa (the official name of the city), it is much more difficult on the national level. Meretz has one Palestinian-Israeli Member of Knesset, Issawi Frej, while the Joint Arab List has one Jewish MK, Dov Khenin. . . .  Logic would suggest cooperation between Meretz and the Joint List, particularly with the Hadash component, i.e., the former Communists and their allies, who define themselves as a Jewish-Arab party and, like Meretz, support a two-state solution. However in the last elections, the Joint List, composed of 4 different Arab parties which are variously progressive, Islamist and nationalist, wasn’t even capable of coming to an excess votes arrangement with Meretz, thanks to a veto by the secular nationalist party, Balad.

The only time the Israeli (Jewish) Left seriously cooperated with the Arab parties was during the Rabin (later Peres) Labor -Meretz government of 1992-96. Although the Arab parties were not officially part of the government, they supported it externally, which was what enabled the Oslo I and II agreements to pass in the Knesset. That was also the period when the most attention was paid to the needs of the Palestinian sector of Israeli society. And it’s that sort of cooperation which is necessary if we are to counteract the powerful ultra-nationalist and extremist religious trends within Israeli society. However, it won’t be quick or easy to achieve.  . . .

Hillel Schenker

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