By Ray Hanania
If Palestinian voters in Israel ever needed a reminder that they must speak up for themselves, it was this week, when the two largest liberal Israeli parties decided to merge without giving a top-10 election spot to an Arab member.
The leaders of the once-powerful Labor Party and Meretz, which has touted its Jewish-Arab partnership, merged this week into one political party in the hope of winning more seats in the March 2 election and finally unseating besieged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the elections held in April and September last year, no clear winner emerged, with the right-wing conservative coalition led by Netanyahu battling for control with the center-left liberal coalition headed by Benny Gantz. Neither alliance has been able to form a coalition government that controls the necessary 61 Knesset seats.
Netanyahu is desperate because he is facing three indictments on charges of corruption and has been unable to negotiate an immunity deal that would prevent him from facing criminal charges. However, the corruption allegations have not sparked a backlash strong enough to see him voted out of office.
The deadlocked Israeli parties on the right and the left have now decided to consolidate their candidate lists to strengthen their appeal among Israel’s Jewish voters. And they have done so at the expense of Palestinian voters, including those who have been loyal to the Israeli system by participating in and supporting Zionist organizations and parties like Meretz and Labor.
For years, Palestinians living in Israel have been excluded and marginalized by the right but, as the risk of another stalemate in the upcoming election increases, the left has also decided to come together without the support of Arab leaders. The new left-wing alliance, which will support Gantz’s coalition, is headed by Labor chairman Amir Peretz. A former defense minister, Peretz called the move of uniting Labor with Meretz “a partnership of change and hope.”
While Palestinians have been pushed out of right-wing alliances over the years, they have traditionally found support and sympathy in left-wing parties like Labor and especially Meretz, which has always advocated for a two-state solution and has slated Arabs in key positions to win seats — but not anymore.
Issawi Frej, a long-time Palestinian member of Meretz who has served in the Knesset on the party’s slate, was eased out in the new merger in a snub to the Palestinians who have sought to participate in Israel’s political establishment. Frej has been involved in Peace Now and the Geneva Accords movement. He told Haaretz: “In April, the Arabs saved Meretz partly because of appropriate representation, with two spots in the top five. Now I find myself like an activist whose bulldozer was stolen and replaced with a shovel.”
But the move could simply be a short-term strategy to help the left take office, as the Palestinians in Israel continue to vote far below their potential. If Palestinians refuse to vote, citing “normalization” concerns, they can’t have representation in Israel’s government. But, without a voice in government, they will be hopelessly marginalized. And, if the Palestinian population, which makes up 20 percent of Israel’s near-9 million citizens, does not have a real voice in determining government policy, then the Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation will be even worse off than they are today.
What Frej must do now is step back and encourage his supporters to back the Palestinian parties led by Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh. Many Palestinians do not vote for Arab parties, but instead back Zionist list candidates like those representing Labor and Meretz, believing that working from the inside can achieve change, while working from the outside will only reinforce the stalemate.
The stronger the voice Palestinians can have in the Knesset, the more likely it is that they will be able to weaken the right. Even though Labor and Meretz have stepped back from an alliance with the Palestinian community, the latter still has an obligation to do what is right and advocate for peace based on equality and the implementation of a two-state solution to create a Palestinian state.
They cannot afford to allow emotion and anger to drive their actions, and they must look past the short-term. It is not an easy thing to do — to step back and take the snub — but that is exactly what Palestinian voters must do in order to survive. The left’s strategy is simple and based on a desire to take votes away from conservative centrists who may dislike non-Jews and currently vote for the right. This faction of voters could be drawn to the left by the Labor-Meretz deal. Those who say that is a surrender to racism don’t understand the power dynamics of politics in the West and in a country like Israel.
You can stand up for principles all you want, but, if you can’t get control of power, then principles mean nothing.