By Ray Hanania
For the first time in many years, Israel’s Arab citizens have seen the potential that a larger voter turnout can have in empowering their leadership and giving them a voice. Although it might be difficult to see it through the fog of animosity that exists in Israel today, recent trends suggest that, one day, Palestinians could control Israel’s government.
That is not as farfetched as it might sound. In the March 2 Knesset elections, the Arab Joint List coalition won 15 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament — its largest representation in the country’s history. The Joint List ranked third in terms of the number of Knesset seats won, behind only the right-wing Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which claimed 36 seats, and the Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz, which has 32 seats.
This election is important because it represents the third attempt in the past 11 months to form a new government. But, even though the Palestinians will not be able to lead the effort to form a government today, their success promises that, one day, that could easily happen. Israeli Jews may find themselves in a situation where they will have to ask an Arab coalition, as the largest bloc in the Knesset, to form a ruling government.
Set aside all of the likely scenarios in which Israel’s “democracy” would approve even more restrictive and discriminatory laws to deny non-Jews equality, and this election shows that anything can happen. There are 67 Israeli laws that discriminate against non-Jews, and against Palestinian citizens in particular. But apartheid Israel may ultimately find itself in the same sinking boat as the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was dismantled in the early 1990s.
Israel’s non-Jewish population makes up 20 percent of the total, which means that non-Jews should be able to control 24 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Should the Jewish parties falter — and that is a possibility — 24 seats could be enough to make the Arabs the largest party and thereby give them a shot at forming a government.
Who needs a revolution, warplanes, weapons or violence when you can have the democratic means to transform the country into what you want? Coalition-building is a strategy. It may not seem likely today, with only 15 seats out 120 in your hand, but that is a foundation from which to grow.
Arabs often talk about the “demographic time bomb” — the power of their birth rate being higher than the Jewish birth rate. If the current trends continue, the Arab population could one day overtake the Jewish population inside Israel. But voting adds real value to that power, fueling Palestinians to survive the racial and civil rights discriminations they face in Israel today.
The Joint List’s result has shocked Israelis. Originally, both Netanyahu and Gantz spoke against forming coalitions with the backing of the Arabs. Netanyahu, one of Israel’s most anti-Arab prime ministers, campaigned on the back of a racist assault against Arabs ahead of last April’s election. He warned his voter base that, if he lost, Gantz would form a coalition with the Arabs and give them the power to decide whether to strike at Gaza or recognize Hamas. Netanyahu used the campaign slogan “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to his own nickname and Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Arab Ta’al party. Tibi and Joint List leader Ayman Odeh later observed that Netanyahu’s fearmongering had helped to fire up Arab voters, giving them more seats and more power.
However, the high turnout by Arab voters forced both Netanyahu and Gantz to change their strategies and campaign promises — a reminder to the Palestinians that most politicians exaggerate and even lie when they are on the campaign trail, and feel no shame in breaking their promises.
Netanyahu, who had previously denounced the Arabs as a threat in the hope of winning more Jewish votes, made a last-ditch appeal to Arab voters just before this month’s elections, appearing on Hala TV, Israel’s only Arabic-language news station. And the Israeli media is now reporting that, if the Joint List declines to partner with Gantz — denying him the ability to form a government — Netanyahu would give Arabs more “benefits,” although it is unclear what those benefits might be.
Gantz, for his part, said before the election that he would not form a coalition with the Arab parties, but is now meeting with Tibi and Odeh, despite pressure from other members of his coalition. Those talks could yet fail and Gantz would be forced to find another way to form a government — but the fact that these events have taken place at all creates a clear path to a future change in Israel’s politics that could benefit the Palestinians.