The turmoil gripping Israel’s political system ahead of the repeat election in September has not skipped over the Arab parties, among which a war is now raging that makes the struggles among the Zionist parties on both the right and the left pale in comparison.
The conduct of the Arab parties and those at their heads could shake things up on the Arab Israeli street to such an extent that the Arab Israeli public, along with the relations between the State of Israel and its Arab citizens, could be put on a new path.
The rift between the Arab parties, but in particular between those parties and their voters, has existed since the previous government. Ahead of the 2015 election, the Arab parties united to form the Joint Arab List, out of fear they might not pass the electoral threshold individually. This alliance led to an awakening in the Arab street, and an increase of some 20% in voter turnout.
Some 100,000 new voters were added to these parties, leading to an unprecedented electoral achievement: The Joint Arab List garnered 13 Knesset seats and became the third-largest party in the Knesset.
But the unity was just for show, and the ego battles that immediately broke out following the election tore the faction to shreds. Ahead of April 9 election, the Arab parties went back to running independently, but the voters abandoned them, and they dropped to 11 Knesset seats. In light of these results, one might have expected Arab politicians to make an effort to unify ahead of the September election, but they appear to be in no rush to do so.
Due to disagreements over the composition of the Knesset list, it seems the Arab parties will once again run independently, and as a result some may not pass the electoral threshold.
But the difficulties facing the Arab parties are rooted not only in their inability to unite and reach technical agreements. The true source of the Arab parties’ problem lies in their agendas, which focus more on the struggle against the State of Israel and its institutions and less on an attempt to further integrate Arab citizens into Israeli society.
The vast majority of Arabs in Israel have long since opted to integrate into the state and its fabric of life. The path is long and riddled with obstacles, some of which stem from their socio-economic status, such as for example the waves of crime and violence plaguing Arab Israeli society. But the data points to impressive progress having been made by Israel’s Arab citizens in every field.
It also seems that among Israel’s decision-makers there are those aware of the need to do more to advance and integrate the country’s Arab citizens in all aspects of Israeli life. And for the first time in years, long-term plans have been made and significant resources allocated to achieving this goal.
But the Arab parties refuse to focus their activities on a civil agenda that seeks to improve the situation of Arab citizens, and dedicate themselves to dealing with the societal and economic problems that concern them. As a result, the voters abandoned the Arab parties en masse.
Decreased voter turnout in the Arab sector was dramatic. In some places, it was down by over 30%. In contrast, there were indications Arab voters were returning to the Zionist parties. Meretz was the main beneficiary of this trend, largely because it courted the Arab vote. But even those Zionist parties that did not bother to engage Arab voters benefited in some way from the neglect of the sector.
These trends will continue in the coming election. But to leverage them into dramatic change in the situation of Arab citizens and their relation with the state and its institutions, a few complementary processes are needed.
First, the appearance of forces and leaders from within the Arab community that will lead a civil agenda focused on bringing about change in the status of Arabs in Israel. And second, the Zionist parties must return to the Arab street, incorporate Arabs in their Knesset lists, and mainly just go out and talk to Arab voters.
And they should do this not just to earn their votes come election day, but to make them legitimate and long-term political partners. Should that happen, the country and its Arab citizens will have set out on a new path.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article first appeared on Israel Hayom.