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New initiative in Israel for Jewish-Arab party

Center-left politicians and former Knesset members are advancing an initiative for a Jewish-Arab party.
An Arab Israeli woman holds a child casting her vote in a ballot box during the country's parliamentary elections at a polling station in the Arab city of Tamra in northern Israel on March 2, 2020. - Israelis were voting for a third time in 12 months today, with embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to end the country's political crisis and save his career. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

In three rounds of elections last year, Israel’s center-left bloc campaigned on the notion of dissociating itself with the country’s Arab citizens. In an effort to sway right-wing voters to switch allegiance to the center-left bloc, Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz, now the minister of defense, made a point of keeping a distance from the Arab population. These efforts were a resounding failure, which sometimes bordered on the absurd. At one point, Gantz would not even call them “Arab citizens, preferring to use the term “non-Jews” instead.

All this has changed. Today, we learned that several Jewish public figures, formerly aligned with the center-left bloc, have created a new group, Brit [Alliance], calling for the creation of a joint Jewish-Arab political party. Among the members of this group are former Minister of the Interior Ophir Pines, former Meretz Knesset member Mossi Raz, former Labor party Chairman Amram Mitzna and former Labor Knesset member Collette Avital.

How the wheel has turned. People associated with the center-left have moved from total dissociation with anything Arab to calls for the creation of a joint Arab-Jewish party to run for the Knesset. Pines went so far as to say, “There is an Arab minority here, and I want to live with them in a civil alliance, including political partnership.”

What lay behind this new initiative to create a joint Arab-Jewish party? In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Raz said, “The initiative is the result of several factors. Avraham Burg [former Knesset speaker] and I have been talking about it for about 10 years now. Over the last two years, a few people, namely Burg, Haim Oron and Ophir Pines, began advancing the idea on a more practical level. We reached the conclusion that politics today is deadlocked. Everyone is stuck where they are. If we ever want to shake things up, we will need a joint Jewish-Arab political party. We spoke about it with lots of public figures, including Joint List representatives and party Chairman Ayman Odeh as well as activists who lead all sorts of initiatives calling for Jewish-Arab political cooperation."

By the way, Odeh’s office said in reaction that the last such a meeting took place some two months ago. Odeh repeated his stance that the idea is for the moment premature, and that any such initiatives must preserve the unity of the Joint List party. 

Asked why there isn’t a single Arab name signed on to their call to create a Jewish-Arab political framework, Mossi Raz explained. “It was intentional. We wanted only Jews to sign this letter, because in it, we atone for our sins, apologize for the past and extend a hand to the Arab community. We tell them that they extended a hand to us for years, but we rejected them. The situation is different now. We are the ones extending a hand to them. The goal of the members of this group is not to run for Knesset — it is to lay the groundwork for such a party’s run. We are the organizers, not the people who appear on stage. We will soon be joined by more public figures, including heads of local authorities, academics and representatives of Arab society.”

Anyone who keeps tabs on Arab society in Israel will know that many Arab voters are looking for a political home that is not the Arab Joint List. They consider the party to be an increasingly exclusive club. They feel — as I explained in an earlier Al-Monitor article — that the party is inaccessible to 'outsiders.' In other words, it is closed to any Arab who wants to run for Knesset, but is not a member of one of the four factions that compose the party. That may explain why the Arab electorate is often more dedicated to voting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than for the Joint List.

On the other hand, the Jewish center-left is becoming increasingly repulsive to the Arab population after years of dissociating from potential Arab constituents, taking Arab society for granted and rejecting them whenever they reached out.

In very practical terms, and on the backdrop of the balance of power within the Knesset, the inevitable conclusion is that there isn’t a single center-left candidate who can really run for prime minister without the support of Arab society or its Knesset representatives. Could Gantz be asked by the president to form a government, if the members of the Joint List won’t recommend him? Of course not. This sense of revulsion toward the center-left might also explain why the Arab population is in no hurry to join the wave of protests that have appeared across the country in the last few months, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

What does the Arab society think about this initiative? As in so many other issues, opinions seem to be split. Attorney Ayman Abu Raya of Sakhnin posted on Facebook that the organizers were “Refugees from reality,” adding that “their future was behind them.” He told Al-Monitor, “I see nothing good coming out of this initiative. It’s time for people to start coming up with new ideas. The center-left thinks that we are in their pocket, but the alliance with them was a total failure. I see no reason why Arabs wouldn’t link up with the right-wing parties, in order to benefit the Arab public, which is in a state of total crisis. If anyone has any complaints about it, let them check the Joint List. It recommended Gantz and his party, which included right-wing extremists like [Zvi] Hauser and [Yoaz] Hendel.”

In contrast, Thabet Abu Rass, co-chair of the Abraham Initiatives organization, told Al-Monitor, “This is an important initiative. I welcome it. Any Jewish-Arab political partnership challenges the foundations of the Israeli right. Working together like that must include a solid base of people and involve agreeable, equal and clear dialogue. There is a lot to improve in this initiative, especially since there are already several groups in Israel calling for this kind of cooperation. They need to be consolidated. Dialogue with the Joint List is an important prerequisite for the success of the alliance.”

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