With its win of 13 Knesset seats, the Arab-led Joint List doubled its size in September’s parliamentary election and became Israel’s third largest party. This represents a significant breakthrough for Israel’s 2 million-strong Arab minority, and could presage the blossoming of a new 21st century identity for Israeli Arabs.
Arab parties have never been invited to join an Israeli ruling coalition. And if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is successful in cobbling together a 61-member governing coalition, it won’t happen this year, either. But it is clear that something has changed, and that Arab Israelis are starting to engage more fully in the electoral process, and their elected representatives are feeling empowered to start flexing some political muscle.
September’s do-over election focused heavily on the role and future of Netanyahu — an Arab community antagonist — and offered Israel’s Arabs a possible role in effecting change. In response, Arab parties put aside enough of their differences to bring the Joint List back together, and to lead the surge in Arab turnout to vote for them, and against the continuing Netanyahu threat. Now, with its newfound prominence, the Joint List could become the leader of the opposition to a national unity government it will not join.
But where would the Arab parties fit? And can they play a constructive role in the next Knesset? We’re not sure. But it does seem clear that some change has occurred, and more is likely to come. Indeed, a recent poll found that 65% of Arab citizens are proud to be Israeli, and 76% of Israeli Arabs favor the Arab parties joining the government.
In light of those developments, many Israeli commentators saw the Joint List’s public endorsement of Blue and White’s Benny Gantz for prime minister as a watershed event. “The endorsement by the Joint Arab List of a Zionist party to form a government in Israel is a historic, formative and exciting event,” Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv. And since no Arab party had participated in the recommendation process since the 1980s, “this endorsement marks a historic move by the Arab Knesset members toward their voters: integration, coexistence and influence.”
That doesn’t mean that Israel’s Arabs embrace the notion of Israel as the nation state of the Jews. They largely don’t. But the non-Zionist haredi parties have long sat in the government, and that involvement sets a good precedent for the Israeli Arabs.
For now, President Reuven Rivlin has turned to Netanyahu, not Gantz, to try to form a government. As that process unfolds, Arab Israelis, like the rest of us, will wait to see what happens. In the meantime, as Israel’s Arab parties focus on possible further integration into the political process and work to identify a meaningful role in the coming Knesset, Israel’s Arab citizens can dream about a new beginning and expanded opportunities. JT