The media reports out of Israel these days are all about coalition-wrangling. Will Benjamin Netanyahu reach the magical 61 Knesset seats necessary to form a government by combining his 31 Likud-Beiteinu seats and the 19 from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with those of ultra-Orthodox parties like Shas (11 seats) and United Torah Judaism (7), which might create new opportunities to advance the peace process but could stymie efforts to force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military? Or will Netanyahu and Lapid instead ally with Naftali Bennett’s settler-dominated Jewish Home party (12 seats), which might be more open to a deal on the ultra-Orthodox but will dig in against any movement toward a Palestinian state.
It’s an intriguing Rubik’s cube. But Israeli Arabs (also called Palestinian citizens of Israel) aren’t part of the game because while they can vote, and while Arab parties serve in the Knesset, they’ve never been part of a coalition government. The ostensible reason? The Arab parties are non-Zionist. But Israeli coalitions regularly include non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox parties. Which brings us to the real reason for the Arab parties’ exclusion: To be considered legitimate by the Israeli political mainstream, Israel’s government must enjoy a Jewish majority.
For Israeli democracy, that’s a disaster. First, it skews Israeli governments to the right. Between them, the three Arab parties (the nationalist Balad, the Islamist United Arab list and the Arab-Jewish Communist Hadash) boast 11 seats. Were they considered legitimate coalition partners, Netanyahu and Lapid could, theoretically, form a coalition without either Bennett’s Jewish Home or the ultra-Orthodox parties. Conversely, the centrist Lapid could crown himself prime minister—and exclude both the far-right Jewish Home and the increasingly far-right Likud-Beiteinu—by cobbling together a coalition that included the Arab parties (11 seats), Labor (15), Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (6), the dovish Meretz (6), Kadima (2) and the religious parties, thus building a government that might actually be eager to negotiate a two state deal. Even if Netanyahu didn’t ultimately bring in the Arab parties, even raising the option would decrease the leverage enjoyed by illiberal parties like Jewish Home and Shas.
But since the Arab parties are considered illegitimate, even centrist Israeli prime ministers like Ehud Barak—whose coalition included Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Religious Party, the precursor to Bennett’s Jewish Home—have been forced to ally with ultra-Orthodox and/or right-wing parties that lack a basic commitment to Israeli democracy. The point isn’t that the Arab parties are perfect. Far from it. Former Balad leader Azmi Bishara once praised Hezbollah and Hafez Assad. But including Arab parties in governing coalitions won’t change Israeli policy toward Hezbollah. What it might change is the amount of government money that flows into Israeli Arab communities. And that’s hugely important. In 2003, a commission led by former Israeli supreme court justice Theodor Or acknowledged that “government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory.” The fact that Israeli Arabs receive less government money for education, housing and the like exacerbates their alienation from the very idea of a Jewish state. And it makes them more sympathetic to militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
It’s no coincidence that between 1992 and 1995, Yitzhak Rabin, the one Israeli prime minister who forged an alliance with the Arab parties (even though they never officially joined his government), doubled spending on education for Israeli Arabs, ended the discrepancy between the amount the government paid Jewish and Arab families per child, introduced affirmative action to boost the number of Arab citizens in Israel’s civil service and built dozens of health clinics in Arab Israeli communities. And by Rabin’s final year in office, according to the University of Haifa’s Sammy Smooha, the percentage of Israeli Arabs who rejected Israel’s “right to exist” had hit an all-time low.
Since then, the percentage of Arab Israelis denying the legitimacy of the state in which they live has shot up, in part because of the wave of anti-Arab legislation pushed by former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and other members of Netanyahu’s government. And although 56 percent of Israeli Arabs voted in this year’s elections, a slight increase over 2009, that’s still way down from the 75 percent who turned out in 1999. Nothing would be more dangerous for Israeli security than for Israel’s Arab citizens to abandon the democratic process and begin expressing their anger at Israel’s government through violence. But since Arab parties can’t join Israel’s government—and thus can’t access the ministries through which they could funnel resources to their home communities—Israel gives its Arab citizens less of an incentive to vote.
Finally, Israel’s Arab citizens, if empowered to play a greater role in Israel’s government, could be a bridge between Palestinians beyond the green line and Israeli Jews. The reason, as James Zogby revealed in a fascinating poll released last October, is that on issue after issue, Israeli Arabs are more supportive of the two state solution than both their Palestinian cousins outside Israel proper and their Jewish fellow citizens inside Israel itself. According to Zogby, only 35 percent of Israeli Jews and 33 percent of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians back the parameters for a two state deal unveiled by Bill Clinton in December 2000. (Among Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the numbers are even lower). But among Israeli Arabs, the Clinton parameters enjoy 57 percent support. Only 28 percent of Israeli Jews and 15 percent of West Bank and Gazan Palestinians support dividing Jerusalem so that its Jewish neighborhoods remain part of Israel and its Palestinian ones became part of a Palestinian state. But 68 percent of Israeli Arabs back such a division.
Israeli Arabs are far more likely than Israeli Jews to say the settlements pose an obstacle to peace but they’re also substantially more likely than West Bank and Gazan Palestinians to say that Palestinian violence represents a threat to peace. In other words, as people who strongly identify with the suffering of their Palestinian cousins across the green line, but also understand—and even empathize with—the anxieties of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs can help narrow the gap between a Jewish state and a Palestinian national movement that are drifting further apart, and appear headed for war.
Just days after his surprise election showing, Yair Lapid announced that he would not join a government with “Hanin Zoabis” (Zoabi, who sailed on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship that tried to break Israel’s Gaza blockade in 2010, is a particularly controversial Arab Israeli Knesset member). In so doing, he reaffirmed the historic exclusion of Arab parties from Israel’s government. That’s a terrible mistake. And if Lapid hopes to one day follow in Yitzhak Rabin’s footsteps, and become a genuine champion of Israeli democracy, he must one day recognize the error of his ways.