Understanding the Politics of Israeli-Arabs, by Adam Moss

Photo from Al Arabiya News and Reuters

     The term “Israeli-Arab political party” is a contradiction within itself. On the one hand, you are party that represent your constituents; Israeli-Arab citizens of the state. On the other hand, you are a political party that fights for the rights of their brethren in West Bank and Gaza. To an outsider, this contradiction of identity can be quite confusing. One way to understand how Israeli-Arab political parties identify themselves is to examine the history of local and national political life of Israeli-Arabs.
               Israeli-Arab political parties have traditionally been a part of the Israeli political system and have held seats in every Knesset (Israeli parliament) since the founding of the state. Today there are 3 main Arab parties: Hadash, Balad, and United Arab List-Ta’al. Each of these parties have a conflict between loyalty to the state of Israel and Palestinian national aspirations in the context of Israel. Israeli-Arab parties have always faced an uphill battle. Since the 2nd Intifada and the rise of the Israel’s new right wing, however, it is now considerably tougher. 
               In 2009, Israel’s Election Committee banned Balad and United Arab List-Ta’al due to charges of supporting terror. There were also allegations that the parties posed a threat to the “Jewish and democratic” character of the state. Israel’s Supreme Court later overturned both of these charges, and the parties were able to take part in elections.
               Today, Israeli-Arab parties must also contend with election threshold. On March 4, 2014, the government passed a law to raise the threshold from 2% to 3.25% of the vote in order to receive a seat in the Knesset. If the Israeli-Arab parties receive the same percentages as the last election, Balad and Hadash will not gain seats and United Arab List-Ta’al will receive, at most, two seats.  
               To get further insight, I spoke with Faissal Jbaili who is a former member and supporter of Hadash, Israel’s longest-standing Israeli-Arab party,. He currently works as an editor for Israel’s Channel 2 news weekly Arabic edition.
Q: Faissal, how long have you been involved in politics in Israel?
A: I have been involved since the early 70s in the communist party, which helped in founding what we know today as Hadash, which started out as an Arab-Jewish anti-Zionist party.

Q: How in your view has the politics of Israeli-Arabs changed over the years?
A: Before 1967 Israeli-Arab parties were allied with the Labor party. Post 1967 communism became very popular and was seen as a way to better our situation by sitting in the opposition.
This is when Hadash, Israel’s first real pro Israeli-Arab party, developed. At the same time the Islamic parties started to form, but in the beginning they were just into local politics. It wasn’t until the late 80s when they went into national politics.  If you were in the Arab sector you either voted for Hadash or the Islamic parties.
The golden era was the 90s; Oslo. Nawaf Massalha was the first Israeli-Arab Muslim to be given a cabinet seat and also government gave money to Nazareth for tourism. We generally felt closer to the Jewish sector.
The era around the second Intifada is when things went downhill. In 1999 Israel had a direct election for prime minster and 95 % of the Israeli-Arab population voted for Ehud Barak, yet not one seat was given to an Israeli-Arab in the cabinet. This was furthered by the October 2000 Riots, where thirteen Israeli-Arabs died when protesting against the government’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza. This was when Israeli-Arabs saw that the government still uses force rather than talking to the Arab-sector, and this started the current bad atmosphere.

Q: Do you view the new Israeli-Arab parties, Balad and United Arab List- Ta’al, as a threat to Hadash?
A:  Islamists will always vote for United Arab List-Ta’al and would never vote for Hadash. Though I believe in the next election, because of the events in Egypt, the Islamic parties will get fewer votes.
Balad is the competition. A charismatic leader named Azmi Bishara started Balad in the 1990s. He was a different kind of Israeli-Arab leader, he had connections with the PLO, George Habash (leader of the PFLP), and they were seen as the new more aggressive party.
However, since Bashira fled the country in 2007 after having legal troubles for supporting Syria and Hezbollah during the war in 2006, Balad’s standing has gone down within the Israeli-Arab community. You can’t tell your constituents to fight against the state and then run yourself.
You can see their popularity has gone down with the last mayoral election in Nazareth, when Haneen Zoabi failed in the election.

Q: Why is Ahmed Tibi, a member of the joint United Arab List-Ta’al party, seen in the last poll by Yedioth Aharonot as the most popular Arab Politician in Israel?
A: Ahmed Tibi has a very interesting story. He was an adviser to Arafat, and there were many rumors in the Arab sector that he was working with the Israeli Shin Bet; because how could you be an adviser to Arafat and not get in trouble. However, he has been able to do more than many others for the Arab sector. Most of the Israeli-Arab parties make a lot of noise but don’t really do anything. He however, has been able to pass laws to better the community. He is very popular with young voters.

Q: Final question, do you think the Israeli-Arab parties will unite or boycott the next election because of the threshold Law, and furthermore how do you see the future of Israeli-Arab politics?

A: Personally, I believe party leaders did not unite before because of ego. I see them uniting and they must unite! They all want the same thing. There will be two parties; one Islamic and the other secular. Through this we will be able to keep our seats.  Despite what the parties say, in my opinion we want to be a part of the system. A lot of Israeli-Arabs are doctors, judges, lawyers, some even do national service and others are part of Zionist parties; we are not going to give up our seats in the national parliament. We will find a way.

This article is written by one of Diwaniyya's interns, Adam Moss.  Adam is a Masters Candidate in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University.


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