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Ayman Odeh
Ayman Odeh, a 40-year-old lawyer, heads the Joint List . Odeh is a charismatic Arab politician, who confidently jousts with Jewish rivals on TV and wants to build a broad Arab-Jewish “alliance of the disadvantaged,” has emerged as one of the biggest surprises of Israel’s election campaign.

By Louis Fishman
Much attention has been given to the Jewish-Arab Hadash party’s unification with the Arab parties, which are running in the current election under the name the “Joint List” (not the Arab Joint List, as much of the Israeli press is reporting). Even if this was done in orderto ensure the parties pass the election threshold, it has turned into a major force on the Israeli political map, joining together communists, nationalists, Islamists, Arabs and Jews.

If polls are correct, the party could even come in third place, winning between 12 and 15 seats of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats. While it is hard to imagine that the two expected winners of the elections, the Likud and the Zionist Camp (Labor), will enter in to a unity government, if they do, such a scenario could turn the Joint List into the main opposition party.

As opposed to the past, when most of the Israeli media brushed off the Arab parties as unworthy of election coverage, often even discarding Hadash as “Arab,” despite its Jewish constituency, the Joint List’s strength can no longer be ignored, leading to the obvious conclusion that Israeli Jews will also for the first time have to come to terms with the fact that the Palestinian minority constitutes almost 20 percent of the population.

Israel is a country made up of multiple sectors, divided along ethnic, religious and ideological lines, which leaves the winner of the Israeli election scrambling for the 60 seats needed to form a government. Despite the tough maneuvering to form a government, none of the major parties in Israeli history has ever invited anti-Zionist Jewish-Arab parties to be part of the government, making coalition-building even more difficult.

A chance for change

If this was not enough, in Israel, unlike most democracies where leftist parties adopt the struggle of the minority, the Labor Party also excludes the Arab constituencies. For example, by adopting the name the “Zionist Camp,” and attempting to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabifrom running in the election, it made it clear that it does not differ from many in the Israeli Right.

Of course, there is the precedent from the 1990s when Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin relied on the Arab votes in the Knesset to save his government during the critical years of the Oslo accords in votes of no confidence; however, this was met with racist cries in the parliament, demanding a “Jewish majority” be reached on issues related to the peace process.

The exclusion of the Arabs from the political scene highlights the fact that Israeli democracy essentially lacks the basic component of a true democracy, which is a sense of citizenship. In Israel, being an anti-Zionist might get you a seat in the government if you are a Haredi Jew, but for Arabs the door is blocked, under a cloud of racism.

With the newfound strength of the Joint List, it might be high time for the Center and Left parties to renegotiate their understanding of what it means to be Israeli. There is no doubt that it can be an important link in securing a peace deal with the Palestinians, ending almost 47 years of occupation.

For this to happen, however, a new force needs to emerge among the Jewish Left, which will give precedence to the sanctity of citizenship. For years, many in the Israeli Left placed hopes in Meretz. Unfortunately, even when it has been a leader in promoting civic rights, it has failed to provide a transformation to a vibrant democracy.

If the Israeli Left congealed over principles of citizenship, a new dynamic could emerge allowing a future for Jews and Arabs to both express their love of the homeland within the same state structures. In other words, it would not end Israel as a Jewish state but provide its Arab citizens with a path to cultural autonomy — a necessary step in the move toward a citizen-state.

While it is still too early to see whether or not the Joint List will succeed in remaining a single party after the elections, its value should be seen in its creativity to unite opposing factions under the banner of citizenship. There is no doubt that it has captured the imaginations of both Arab and Jewish citizens, introducing an important dynamic that could revitalize the Israeli Left.

After decades of political deadlock, the Joint List is indeed a dynamic force of change.

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