Arab parties should be in Israel’s government

Suggesting that Israel-Arab political parties should be in the government is no longer grounds for ostracism and ridicule. At least not as much as it was just a short time ago. Israel’s drawn-out political stalemate, reinforced by the results of yet another election along with a split in the Arab parliamentary bloc, have made the idea legitimate in the eyes of many—even if it’s a hold-the-nose, “better the Arabs than (pick one) Netanyahu or the Left” kind of acceptance.

When I first wrote on this subject a year and a half ago, it was still considered heresy bordering on treachery to suggest that Arab parties should be invited into a ruling coalition. That’s because they are pro-Palestinian and non-Zionist. You can imagine the comments my article spawned. Not exactly reading material for the whole family.

Even then, there were good reasons to include the representatives of Israel’s Arabs, who are 20 percent of Israel’s citizens.

The problem is the Palestinians, the West Bank and Gaza and how we emphasize it, despite the changes on the ground. That issue has been so important for so long that it defines Israel’s electorate as either “Right” or “Left.”

Here is today’s reality: The Palestinians have turned down at least two Israeli offers of a state according to their own demands. There won’t be another such offer. Even the Trump “Deal of the Century” made no difference, because as expected, the Palestinians rejected it before they even saw it.

So why do we still insist on putting the Palestinians, the occupation, the future of the West Bank, and the settlements at the top of our list of priorities, when the issue clearly doesn’t belong there?

The split in the Arab bloc called the “Joint List” came about mostly because many of Israel’s Arabs have come to the same conclusion. They want to take part in and benefit from the decision-making structure of the country they live in, instead of blindly supporting politicians who are concerned mostly about their neighbors–the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Here are the advantages for all Israelis of bringing an Arab party into the ruling coalition, above and beyond the coalition mathematics, giving Israel’s Arabs:

  • A positive stake in how the country is run.
  • An opportunity to address the backward conditions of many Israeli Arab communities.
  • Effective silencing or at least toning down of their constant criticism.

For seven decades now, Arab-Israeli political parties have been “muktseh,” the Hebrew term for untouchable. Many Israeli Jews consider Israeli Arabs a traitorous threat to security. Perhaps many were for the first decade or two of Israel’s existence, and no doubt there are some who still are—but there are Jews who worry me more than the Arabs do.

It’s well documented that when it comes to unemployment, Arab towns are at the top of the list; and when it comes to income and education, they’re at the bottom.

What have we done to change that in the last seven decades? Not nearly enough. So how about handing one of the social welfare posts to an Arab Cabinet minister, allocate a suitable budget, and turn them loose, with the usual oversight, to work on the problems faced by their own constituents?

Giving the Arab parties an active role in government would counter their automatic rejection of everything Israel does. Of course there would be those who keep up or even increase their outcry, but so what? Their pathetic performances have not endangered the existence of the State of Israel up to now, and they certainly wouldn’t afterward.

Oh, but what of the outrageous demands that the Arab parties would make as a price for allowing us the privilege of giving them seats at the Cabinet table? They might, heaven forfend, insist on repeal of the Jewish State Law. I’ve already written about why the law was/is unnecessary (here it is if you missed it), and nothing would change if it were repealed. Israel is and will remain a Jewish state with protected minorities that have full rights, and no law or lack of one will change that.

They might demand a commitment to negotiating a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Well, no one actually has a problem with that, and anyway, as I already said, it’s off the table, so no harm, no foul.

And they might—no, they will—demand budgets to improve infrastructure, education, and welfare in Israeli Arab communities. I can’t imagine how or why anyone could object to that.

Now let’s get practical. There was a time when non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jewish political parties were “muktseh,” untouchable, in Israeli politics—from the points of view of both the government and the parties. We got over it. The result is that mainstream Zionist parties have been forming coalitions with non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties for decades, and while their behavior outrages many people, no one considers them illegitimate.

And of course there was the slogan of the first decades of Israeli government-forming: “No Communists and no Herut.” Herut was the forerunner of Likud. How did that turn out?

Perhaps one day we will look back on the old days when Arab parties were automatically excluded from government and wonder why.

The times are changing. These days Arab citizens vote for a wide range of parties. The 10 seats won by the Arab parties represent only about half of the Israeli-Arab voters. There are Israeli Arab doctors, nurses, university professors, business executives—not enough, but they’re out there, and no one really notices—nor should they.

That’s how it is in the Ramla shuk, the open-air market in an old, middle-class Jewish-Arab town in central Israel. I’ve been shopping there once a week for two decades. You can’t tell who’s a Jew and who’s an Arab. Most of the Arabs speak Hebrew, and many of the Jews speak Arabic. Ramla’s Jews are better off, as a rule, than the Arabs—but at the shuk, everybody just gets along. That’s the natural human condition. We need to make it the natural governing condition, too.