Can An Israeli Government End the Occupation?

There is an important piece published yesterday in the left-leaning pro-peace Israeli website +972. It goes to a central, underlying issue in the upcoming Israeli elections: the role of the Arab parties in Israeli politics and specifically their role – or lack of a role – in Israeli coalitions.

It’s important to start with some basic background. And this will be a thumbnail history. So I’ll leave out a lot of nuance and detail but hopefully leave no major errors. Israel’s Arab minority has always had the vote. And there are minorities within the minority – particularly the Druze community – who play an outsized role in the country’s politics and military relative to their numbers. But they’re the exception. In the early years of Israel’s history, many Israeli Arabs voted for different Zionist parties or Arab parties that had various forms of alignment with major Jewish parties. That has changed over the years – in part because the Arab minority has become more assertive in pressing for its rights within the country.

Two big factors. On the one hand, though many Israeli Arabs still vote for the country’s Zionist parties (basically almost every majority Jewish party in Israel, by definition), more now vote for anti-Zionist and/or Arab nationalist parties. The other major factor in Arab Israeli politics is extremely low rates of participation, which means that Arab political clout is consistently underrepresented in the Knesset.

Currently there are three major Israeli Arab political parties: United Arab List-Ta’al, Balad and Hadash. The first has an Arab nationalist, Islamic ideological hue, Balad is more secular but a self-defined Arab party. Hadash is actually an explicitly bi-national party and eschews both Zionism and Arab nationalism. It has its roots in the Israeli communist party. In terms of where it gets its votes it is a de facto Arab party. But its leadership has a significant Jewish presence and its ideology is explicitly non-nationalist, non-ethnic. One of the major developments in this election is that each of these three parties managed to hash out an agreement to run as a joint list (though they’ll caucus separately once they’re in the Knesset) – a particularly difficult thing to pull off for Hadash since it is in its ideology specifically not an Arab or Arab nationalist party.

The joint list is currently running at around 12 Knesset seats. And there’s a reasonable chance that it could end up being the third largest party, after Labor and Likud.

To the best of my knowledge none of the Arab parties has ever served in an Israeli government. Arabs who are part of Zionist parties have many times but not Arab parties. The current Arab parties actually make clear that they would not join a coalition if asked as long as the occupation continues. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

When Yitzhak Rabin brought Labor back to power in 1992, the Arab parties, which then accounted for far fewer Knesset seats, did not join his government but did support it from the outside. The parliamentary intricacies of this don’t need to distract us now. But it’s important to know that this was critical to what was accomplished during Rabin’s second government – before he was assassinated during the climate of incitement that the current Prime Minister played some significant role in fomenting.

During Rabin’s second government, as the Peace Process was moving forward, the opposition increasingly pushed the demand that any fundamental decisions about the future of the state be made by a “Jewish majority.” It was a premise Rabin explicitly rejected. The point of the Lev Grinberg piece I linked above is that Rabin’s murder by a member of the Israeli far right delegitimized coalitions across the ethnic divide in Israel.

From the Grinberg piece …

So why did Rabin’s assassination terminate the “left and right” political blocs? The three bullets that killed Rabin immediately closed the political space of Israel’s Arab citizens. Rabin brought them in, and his assassination shoved them out. Without the Arab citizens there is no “left-wing bloc,” and no need for its opposing “right wing bloc.” The public lynching of Rabin that preceded his actual killing targeted him for relying on Arab votes to advance his policies. His detractors claimed that without the support of a Jewish majority, he wouldn’t have a mandate to concede parts of Greater Israel. Rabin rejected those criticisms as racism. Indeed, in order to legitimize his murder, Rabin’s detractors dressed him in a keffiyeh. In other words, Rabin’s murder was a racist attack

Since then, the racist discourse has permeated the entire Israeli political arena, not only among the “right,” but also in the so-called “left” and “center.” All of them have adopted the worldview that impossible to make concessions over the Land of Israel by relying on the political support of the “Arabs.” However, if we automatically subtract 10 percent of Knesset members from potential coalitions, we shouldn’t be surprised when, time after time, the Likud is the only party that can select which partners will join it in the government.

But here’s the bigger point of Grinberg’s piece, which is in some respects not subjective but simply mathematical – and it is especially the case if Arab representation in the Knesset grows to a number more in line with the size of Israel’s Arab population, which is roughly 20%. Basically, if the Arab parties are off limits for a governing coalition – even as what Rabin called a “blocking majority”, as I described above – then there is no left or peace bloc, not potential government that can end the occupation. You might have a government led by the Labor Party, so the argument goes. But the nature of the coalitions required to make it possible would prevent any real or enduring change from governments of the right.

I don’t think that’s the whole truth. But there is a lot of truth to it.

Much has changed in Israeli society over the last 23 years. The Arab population is more assertive, the society is more ethnically polarized, something that is inextricably linked – in both directions – to the on-going occupation. Is a Herzog/Livni government at all likely to include the Arab parties? As a formal matter, the answer is almost certainly, no. The leaders of the Arab list themselves have ruled out joining any government as long as the occupation continues. But they’ve also said they are open to the idea of providing a blocking majority – supporting the government from outside.

What did strike me is that recently, Herzog and Livni signaled they were open to it as well – or at least did not rule it out, something that Livni implicitly did in 2009. I get the sense that they alone might be open to it. Where it becomes much more complicated is that a Labor led government would almost certainly also require center-right parties who it’s incredibly difficult to imagine would join a government that relied on the support of Arab parties.

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