Obstacles to United Jewish-Arab Left

Daniel Gordis, an American-Israeli commentator with center-right leanings, does not generally advance views consonant with The Third Narrative.  But what he said in a recent Bloomberg piece, “Israel’s New Election Is an Opportunity for Its Arabs,” deserves our attention (especially in tandem with the second half of this post):

. . . Netanyahu sought a deal with everyone imaginable. He even reached out to the left-leaning Labor Party, a shadow of its former self, whose handful of votes could still make all the difference. According to reports, Netanyahu offered to back off his demands for a law that would grant him immunity from any future prosecution in a variety of looming corruption cases, as well as from a law that would severely curtail the Supreme Court’s right to judicial review. Avi Gabbay, Labor’s limping chief, apparently considered the deal but declined.

In the midst of this circus, Ayman Odeh, an Arab MK and head of the Hadash-Ta’al party, addressed the Knesset. He said Netanyahu had approached him, too, begging him to join the coalition. In the video, which Odeh himself posted on Twitter, one can hear MKs laughing. Odeh reported that the prime minister had offered to exit the occupied territories, annul the Nation-State Law, implement full civic equality for Arabs and recognize the “Nakba,” to “right the wrongs of history.”

What made for the humor was that everyone understood even a desperate Netanyahu would never reach out to the Arabs. No governing coalition has ever included the Arab parties, and the mere idea is still toxic to most Jewish Israelis. 

In fact, as the Blue and White party conducted its campaign this spring, its members said repeatedly that they would work with any party from the “Zionist left to the responsible right.” “Responsible right” was code for excluding Netanyahu — they would not join him, they said, because of the corruption allegations against him and his intention to pass laws to protect himself at the expense of the nation. “Zionist left,” on the other hand, was code for excluding Israel’s Arabs. So even the leading centrist party pledged not to include Arabs in the coalition.

To foreign eyes and ears, that looks and sounds like blatant racism. But to get a sense of how much more complex the story is, look back a few weeks to the ceremony at which the new Knesset (now ending) was sworn in. All the Arab MKs from the Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad parties, though elected in the region’s only functioning democracy, walked out of the ceremony as Israel’s national anthem was sung. Two of Hadash-Ta’al’s newly elected MKs skipped the ceremony altogether. As a recording of David Ben-Gurion declaring Israel’s independence in 1948 was played, two more Arab MKs walked out. Arab members had earlier informed President Rivlin that they would not recommend that anyone to be given a crack at making a coalition. Time and again, Israel’s Arabs portrayed themselves as opposed not to Israel’s ruling government, but to its essence.

There is, of course, a segment of Israelis that has no interest in seeing Arabs more integrated into civil society. A much larger group, however, understands that their inclusion is critical to Israel’s democracy and hopes for progress. Yet Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, and as long as Israel’s Arabs continue to reject that, understandable though that instinct might be, centrist Israelis will raise no eyebrows when centrist parties refuse to do business with them.

Former army chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who ran as co-leader of Blue and White just weeks ago, has a record of being sensitive to the complex position of Israel’s Arabs. When Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, a Christian Arab, did not sing the national anthem at the 2012 swearing-in of Justice Asher Grunis, Ya’alon defended him. He noted that Joubran could not be expected to sing an anthem that focused on Jewish yearning to return to a homeland, and had stood very respectfully as it was sung. Many Jewish Israelis agreed.

Many Israelis are also keenly aware that the government that Netanyahu might have formed was likely to chisel away at Israel’s democratic institutions. A new election is an opportunity to have a long-overdue conversation about democracy and Arabs’ role. Were Odeh to assure Israel’s Jewish majority that the Arab minority will insist on its rights but also embrace citizenship in a Jewish and democratic state, he would likely find many sympathetic ears. But if Arabs leaders continue to reject Israel’s Jewishness at every turn, walking out on national ceremonies, those same rank and file Israelis will decide, again, that Israel’s Arabs are a problem to be contained, not potential partners. And including them in a coalition will sadly remain unthinkable.

Many Israeli Arabs are far more moderate than their leaders.  . . .

With Israelis of all stripes now bracing for far-reaching and potentially painful conversations about the fragility of Israel’s democratic institutions, this would be a perfect time for Jewish Israelis to hear a different voice from their Arab fellow-Israelis. For the sake of both Israel’s Arabs as well as Israel’s democracy, one can only hope that someone will assume that mantle and engender a conversation both among and about Israel’s Arabs that has long been absent, but that could be more important now than it has ever been before.

The following are pertinent portions of the interview article with Yaniv Sagee, which TTN posted in English translation.  Easily lost within that longer piece, they bear repeating here:

. . . [W]e find ourselves after an election cycle in which more than 50 percent of Arab society did not want to vote. And among those who did vote, 28.7 percent gave their votes to secular Zionist parties.”

Almost 30 percent of Arab voters gave their votes to Zionist parties? A shocking fact!
“It is crazy. A minority of the Arab public supported the Arab parties. That is to say, the Arab public is already saying now to representatives in Arab parties: You do not represent us. The question is if they and we, the Zionist left who received ten mandates, can learn the lesson. In my view the picture is clear. The separated politics of the Zionist left and the Arab parties is done.”

. . .  In the previous term Sagee presented his plan [for a Jewish-Arab electoral alliance] to the then chair of Meretz Zahava Galon and the chair of the Joint List Ayman Odeh. They objected to this, out of a fear that this would chase away the main public (the “base”) of both parties.

“Zahava said that this plan threatens the left in Israel, and that we would not get the support of Jews and not of Arabs,” relates Sagee. “Ayman told me the same thing. In my view, these past elections proved that I was right. The Arab public looked at the Joint List and asked, what are you actually giving us? You argue with one another and promote the visibility of the Palestinians struggle, but what about our citizenship, issues of land, construction, civil equality and violence? Surveys we carried out at Givat Haviva showed that the support in the Arab public for a party that expresses Jewish-Arab partnership reaches 40 percent. Among Jews such a party reaches five percent, which is more than Meretz receives now. That is, Jewish voters will not run away.”

From a practical perspective, how exactly will Meretz people, who promote the rights of the gay community, sit together with people of the Islamic movement, whose representative in the previous Knesset was married to two women?
“Right, so then we need to create a mechanism where there is freedom of action. I cannot be a partner in something that will tell me ‘you cannot represent your Zionist world outlook during the next four years.’ On the other hand, I do not want to silence the voice of someone who represents a Palestinian world view of an Israeli citizen who sees his or her nationality as Palestinian. It is impossible to silence Meretz people on the topic of LGBTQ rights, because that is a meaningful part of who we are. But we need to be capable of being in partnership with someone who is not one hundred percent like us. If we are not partners with them, we will not be anything at all.”

Could you live in peace with people from Hadash, some of whom declare their support for Bashar al Assad?
“I think that the support for Assad is madness, and this will be an opportunity for Hadash to undergo a change. When you and I entered under the wedding canopy with our spouses – we decided to change, right? We understood that we would not remain the same. I think that the support for Assad is crazy, but it is not because of this that I will say that I cannot act together with anyone from Hadash. I think that within Hadash there is a lively, complex conversation, and this is a story with marginal significance with Hadash. The mission of Hadash is much more important than Assad not Assad. This is excess baggage from all the historical connections to the Soviet Union.”

In every Arab party, from Hadash to Balad, there are Knesset members who meet with the families of terrorists. How will you be able to cooperate with such an agenda?
“We will need to emphasize red lines, and this will be the real task. To define what the red lines are, and what are the principles of cooperation. I believe this is possible. Issues of terror or support for terror will be a red line. I do not see a possibility of cooperating with anyone who encourages terror.”