Arab Political Integration in Israel: How Far Has It Come?


By: Jacob Lewis


Abstract

Political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel has long been an elusive, yet necessary development for the acceptance of Arab society and individuals as legitimate players in Israeli society. This paper will assess whether political integration is progressing by looking at what blocks political integration in Israel, the historical development of political immersion of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and its current status following the March 2021 election. Although an opportunity to push political integration forward has appeared, we have yet to see if any meaningful changes will materialize.


Introduction

One of the key factors in the legitimization of any minority in a nation’s society is political integration. The Palestinian citizens of Israel have long struggled for such integration as a way to being normalized within Israeli society, as well as to have their own aspirations as an indigenous minority legitimized in the eyes of the state and its Jewish population. Although political integration has not yet occurred for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, recent developments in Israeli politics appear to have advanced the opportunity to push integration forward. Thus, it is a particularly relevant moment in time to discuss whether the Palestinian citizens of Israel are becoming more politically integrated, and if so, what that integration currently looks like.

In order to establish a clear response to this query, a few important factors must be examined: the obstructions to political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the history of political integration, and the current status of political integration. Examining all three individually, and as they intersect, will provide an answer as to whether and how far the Palestinian citizens of Israel are becoming immersed in the political system. Additionally, political integration ought to be defined as regularly operating within the constructs of Israel’s political system and being treated as legitimate players with valid political aspirations by the majority of Jewish, Zionist politicians and parties. Any references to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Israel’s Arab citizens, or Arabs in Israel signifies the same group.


Literature Review

The political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel over time, as well as the causes of its hindrance, have been extensively researched and written about in scholarly text. Therefore, there are plenty of conclusions that can be derived from these aspects of political integration. The best way to understand the historicity of the political integration of Israel’s Arab citizens is to begin with an understanding of the underlying tensions that have thus far prevented full integration.

There are several core obstructions to the integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel that many scholars agree upon. One of these obstructions is the definition of the state itself. Professor Nadim Rouhana of Tufts University describes Israel as a state which, based on ethnicity, prefers Jews over non-Jews in legislation dealing with issues such as immigration, the use of land, and “semi-governmental institutions,” as well as in its Basic Laws, which allow for the disqualification of candidates in elections based off their refusal of acknowledging the state of Israel’s existence and its status as a state of the Jewish people. Rouhana explicitly defines Israel as a “constitutionally exclusive ethnic state,” in which rights and treatment are based on one’s Jewishness or non-Jewishness. Thus, democratic rights are also limited by the state’s inherently Jewish character, as the actors within Israeli politics are limited by their acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state.

A similar view is held by Oren Yiftachel, a professor of political and legal geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has highlighted not only the struggle for Mizrahi Jews to collectively organize for their own rights and inclusivity within the Israeli Jewish sphere, but also the even more dire struggle of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. They face a dilemma wherein there is a battle to be included in the fabric of Israeli society in any capacity at all. Yiftachel points out that a fully functioning democracy must include equal citizenship, protection against the majority or the state, as well as other civil rights. The application of such rights are inherently unequal in a state which is defined by its ethnicity. There appears to be agreement among scholars that the ethnic grounding of the state of Israel acts as an inhibitor to the full political integration of minorities that are non-Jewish, particularly the Arab citizens of Israel.

The distrust of the Jewish majority in Israel against the state’s Palestinian citizens and vice-versa is another important factor that prohibits the integration of the Arab citizens of Israel into the state’s politics. Many studies have been conducted on intolerance in Israeli society. One particular study was carried out in 1980 by Professor Michal Shamir of Tel Aviv University and Professor John L. Sullivan of the University of Minnesota. Their study stressed that 64% of Jews that were polled described “Arab groups,” such as political parties, as their least-liked groups. 65% of Arabs surveyed, on the other hand, stated that “Jewish groups” were their least-liked groups. This, of course, is not an outright declaration of dislike for Jews or Arabs as a collective group; but, it is indicative of a distrust between Jews and Arabs in Israel due to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and the Arab states that stretches back to before Israel’s independence in 1948.

Professor Rebecca Kook of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dr. Arik Rudnitzky of Tel Aviv University’s Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation both further highlight the inability of the Jewish population of Israel to view the Arab citizens of Israel beyond the scope of Palestinian nationalism. Kook and Rudnitzky also point out the fact that the prominent position of the Israeli Zionist right-wing, which is viewed by many Arabs as discriminatory against them, makes it difficult for the Arabs to cooperate with the Jewish majority in politics. The distrust between the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel runs deep through historical trauma and modern-day treatment, and most scholars appear to agree that this makes political integration difficult for the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Historically, there has been a clear trend away from Palestinian citizens working within Zionist parties and towards a conglomeration of Arab parties that operate outside of the Zionist frame. Ben Mendales of Tel Aviv University found that, following the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the leaders of the founding Zionist party Mapai wished to attract Arab voters through Arab satellite parties that were intended to blunt the rise of Arab nationalism and serve as the main “Arab parties” under the military regime Israel imposed over its Palestinian citizens after 1948. This system, Mendales makes clear, could only last as long as the state was able to totally control the development of the politics of the Palestinian citizens until the military regime came to an end in 1966.

Eventually, the Israeli communist party, Maki, broke apart as their Arab support moved to a new party, Rakah. Professor Sunil Choudhary of the University of Delhi remarks that Rakah began the transformation of Arab politics in Israel from cooperating within a Zionist framework to fully representing the values of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Rakah eventually led to the formation of the Palestinians’ contemporary political party Hadash, which according to Choudhary, focuses on socialist ideals, full equality of treatment for the Arab citizens of Israel, and finally an equitable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Choudhary also highlights the other two most important contemporary Arab parties: Balad and the United Arab List (UAL). The former is a party focused on the Palestinian nationalist movement, while the latter is an Islamist party. Both are focused on material gains for the Arab communities in Israel. While academics point out that Arab parties used to operate within the orbit of the Zionist Mapai, the trend since 1966 has been towards parties which cater specifically to the needs and aspirations of the Arab citizens of Israel, with a few Arab members of the Knesset in Zionist parties.

Particularly, there was a period in the 1990s where several taboos between the Zionist parties and the major Arab parties were broken. Professor Tamir Sorek of the University of Florida writes, “Rabin led three historic inter-related political processes, which were highly applauded by the Arab public… [he] began the Oslo process, which included formal recognition for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO),” the backing of the Arab parties from outside the government as “legitimate actors” in Israel’s political system, and Rabin heading the most significant effort to decrease state discrimination against Palestinian citizens. Although at this point in the 1990s the Arab parties were separated from the Zionist parties, this appears to be one of the first cases of a significant attempt to politically integrate the Palestinian citizens of Israel into Israeli politics. Following Rabin’s assassination, this brief period came to a close.

Unfortunately, the most recent developments in Arab political integration are lacking in scholarly assessment; the vast majority of what must be relied on regarding current political integration is media reports and public opinion. That being said, there is a wealth of these recent sources available, and they will be more widely addressed in the discussion of this paper.


Discussion

The factors that inhibit the political integration of Israel’s Palestinian citizens are particularly difficult to overcome. As stated in the literature review, most Jewish Israelis have a particularly difficult time separating the Palestinian citizens from the overall Palestinian nationalist movement, and therefore do not trust them. This, combined with the Arabs’ distrust of the Israeli right-wing and the “exclusivity of defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people [as] an overriding principle that qualifies equality for those who are excluded and limits full democracy to those who belong to the dominant group,” means that there is an inherent exclusivity to the political scene in Israel that separates Jewish, Zionist parties from their Arab counterparts. This tension and distrust which is rooted in the social inequality and historical conflict between the two broad groups makes political cooperation of any kind, and full political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, incredibly difficult to achieve.

Furthermore, the status of the Palestinian citizens’ political integration over time must be clarified. Although during the period of the early state there were Arab satellite parties in the Knesset, they operated under the ruling, Zionist Mapai. These satellite parties broke apart as “the removal of restrictions on movement, expression, organization and assembly enabled Rakah, and later Hadash, to thrive.” The satellite parties could not possibly offer a more “authentic” representation of the Palestinian citizens’ preferences in the political sphere, and thus cannot be considered a form of full political integration.

The exclusion of Arab parties from the functioning of Israeli politics and governance became even more stark once parties that represented Arabs outside of the influence of Mapai began to dominate Arab politics, with Palestinian citizens’ support for Zionist parties dropping to 34% by 1977. The Arab parties were not considered legitimate partners, displayed by their exclusion from all governments except for their outside support of Rabin’s 1992 government, as well as the disqualification of Arab parties based on the Jewish character of the state of Israel. This includes the banning of The Socialist Party in 1965, which contained members of El Ard, a party which was “Pan-Arab, pro-Palestinian.” Israel’s Central Election Committee (CEC) made the choice to disqualify The Socialist Party due to the belief that it challenged the existence of the state of Israel by seeking to alter its Jewish character.

Additionally, in 1985 the CEC opted to disqualify Kach on grounds of racism, which sought to deport Palestinian citizens of Israel from the country, as well as the Progressive List for Peace (PLP), which was a “Jewish-Arab party… [that] supported Palestinian nationalism… and viewed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” Although the Supreme Court ruled that “neither Kach nor the PLP could be seen as imperiling democracy or the state’s existence” and had their disqualifications overturned, it told the Knesset that legislators could outline an amendment to the Basic Laws that legitimized the disqualification of parties that deny the state of Israel as being the state of the Jewish people. These moves served to further cement the delegitimization of the Arab parties. Not only were they excluded from working with the Zionist parties, but they could also be disqualified for displays of Palestinian nationalism. Political integration throughout the history of the state for its Palestinian citizens has long been, and has continued to be, a faraway dream. Fortunately, things appear to be changing regarding political integration of Israel’s Palestinian citizens in a positive way.

Given the trajectory of the political integration of the Arab citizens of Israel, the current situation is a promising one, but it is not definitive regarding full integration. Following the political deadlock of the April 2019 Israeli election to the Knesset, and the subsequent September 2019 election, all the Knesset members from the sole Arab party at the time, named the Joint List, except for Balad, recommended Blue and White’s Benjamin Gantz to form a government. This was a historic move, as the last time that Arab parties recommended a Jewish candidate to form a government was Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. After a government failed to be formed, and another election was held in March 2020, the Joint List reached a high of 15 Knesset members, all of them recommending Gantz to form the next government. The March 2020 election also saw the highest Arab turnout in over two decades, with 67.0% of the Palestinian citizens of Israel voting, and nearly 87% supporting the Joint List. The high turnout among the Arab population, the vast support of the Arab Joint List, and the party’s willingness to support a centrist, Zionist leader for Prime Minister, shows that Arab politicians and the Arab public wish to be included in the governing process of Israel.

Gantz would go on to support Prime Minister Netanyahu by setting up a “unity” government between many of the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel, spurning the relationship that was developing between the Joint List and a portion of the Zionist parties. This government did not last long, fueled by the differences between Gantz and Netanyahu, and a new election was set for March 2021. Although Netanyahu’s previous statements regarding Arab voters have been highly inflammatory, such as how in 2015 he stated that his right-wing government was in danger as “Arab voters are coming in droves to the voting booths. Leftist organizations are busing them in,” he quickly changed his tune as he realized how much weight the Arab bloc has numerically, and continued to run out of enough potential partners among the Zionist parties in Israel due to his corruption allegations.

Netanyahu spent the months leading up to the election attempting to court Arab voters and convincing the leader of the UAL, Mansour Abbas, to leave the Joint List. Abbas, due to his willingness to work with Netanyahu—a red line for the Joint List—and disagreement over social issues such as conversion therapy, decided to pull the UAL out of the Joint List. At the same time, Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist, Zionist Yesh Atid party, also expressed a willingness to seek the support of the Joint List in forming the next government. Additionally, more Arabs were placed higher up on the Labor and Meretz party lists for the March 2021 election. All of this being said, there is a clear shift from just a few years ago in Israeli politics. The right-wing prime minister of Israel went from using Arab voter turnout as a means of scaring right-wing voters for their support, to openly asking Arabs for their vote and floating the idea of working with the UAL. The political leader of the centrist Zionists, Lapid, is openly and frankly addressing the potential for cooperating with the Joint List as outside support in forming a government. These are positive shifts in the direction of political integration.

Regrettably, the circumstances surrounding the March 2021 election decreased voter turnout among the Palestinian citizens of Israel. After being burned by Gantz following the March 2020 election, and the splitting up of the Joint List, only 44.6% of Arab voters turned out, as opposed to 67.4% of all voters. In the March 2020 election, 67.0% of Arab voters turned out while 71.3% of all voters did the same. With over a twenty point drop in turnout, the Arab parties fell from fifteen seats to ten, with the Joint List holding six seats and the UAL holding four. This demonstrates that Arab voters were displeased with their electoral options; not only was the Joint List spurned by the opposition to the Israeli right-wing after being courted by Gantz, but their ostensibly unified party broke apart before the March 2021 election. Additionally, although Likud received more Arab votes than they did in the previous few elections, the numerical increase was miniscule and not integral to their electoral success in any meaningful way. For a segment of Israeli society which is still in the process of political integration, such low turnout and faith in its political leaders is not a great sign for the success of integration.

However, there are some positive aspects of the March 2021 election regarding the political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel. For one thing, Abbas and the UAL are in a “kingmaker” position for forming a government. The right-wing bloc, led by Netanyahu, is two seats short of a majority if it includes Yamina, which has not technically backed a candidate for prime minister yet. The UAL is the only other undecided party left to be persuaded, and with some Likud members seemingly open to allowing the UAL to presumably support the government from the outside, there is a chance that a right-wing government could be established with their support. However, the UAL is opposed to sitting in a government with Otzma Yehudit, the successors of Kach, and the Religious Zionist party as a whole is opposed working with the UAL. This complicates the math necessary to form a government; and the anti-Netanyahu bloc of parties will be looking to court the Joint List and the UAL to back their government from the outside. This is a thorny issue for Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party and Yamina if they opt not to side with Netanyahu as they are not inclined to work with the Arab parties. Additionally, two out of six of Meretz’s, and one out of seven of Labor’s, members of the Knesset are Arab. While this is not many, it illustrates that the center-left Zionist parties are at the very least working to promote Arab representation in mainstream Israeli politics.

Abbas recently gave a primetime broadcasted speech in Hebrew in which “he called for Jewish-Arab political cooperation.” Whether the speech brings about the beginning of real political integration for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, it is a rare occasion for a prominent Arab politician to give a speech on primetime Israeli television. The UAL, much like the Joint List, is demanding material benefits for the Arab community at large, including dealing with organized crime and violence in Arab communities, but also “annulling the 2018 Nation-State law.” The latter demand will cause particular controversy among Zionist members of the Knesset.

Lastly, it is important to think about how the Israeli public overall is viewing the dramatic change in treatment of the Arab parties by the mainstream Zionist parties in Israel. A recent poll from the Israel Democracy Institute found that 48% of Israelis “now back forming a government with the outside support of Arab parties,” with 44% to 41% of Jews in favor. Only 23% of Jewish voters supported this in February 2020. This is a large shift in support of a government being backed by Arab parties, and the fact that 34% of right-wing Jews and 58% of centrist Jews support this idea is also a meaningful shift in sub-groups.

The reality of an Arab party backing a potential government from the outside has not fully solidified quite yet; and if this occurs, the opinion among Jews in this regard might change. In fact, if such a deal were officially struck, particularly if Arab parties prop up an anti-Netanyahu government, the right-wing could go back to openly discriminating against the Arab parties. It is also important to note that 65.5% of those surveyed among Arab voters supported the idea of the Arab parties supporting a government from the outside, although that is clearly not a consensus belief. The lack of a consensus among Arab voters could be because of a dislike for potentially partnering with the right-wing Zionist parties or for potentially working with Gantz in an anti-Netanyahu coalition. There could also be Arab voters who do not want to cooperate with Zionist parties at all, among other reasons. What is clear is that this is the first time since Rabin’s 1992 government in which the Arab parties have real potential to be integral in forming Israel’s government. Whether it will be with the Joint List or the UAL, or both of them, is a question that cannot be answered, but their outside backing of an Israeli government would be a major step forward in the political integration of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially so at a time when a plurality of Jewish voters support such a government.


Conclusions

Given the current political situation in Israel, there is reason to be optimistic about the direction of political integration for the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Given the inhibitors to political integration, such as the inherently Jewish character of the state and the distrust between Jews and the Arab citizens of Israel, as well as the historical alienation of Arab political parties from the workings of the Israeli government, the potential for supporting an Israeli government from the outside for only a second time is a realistic opportunity for political integration. Some caveats, however, are necessary. The forming of a government with the outside support of one or both of the Arab parties is not guaranteed, and in fact a fifth election in what will be just over two years may be a more likely outcome. Even if a government is formed in this scenario, it occurred once before with Rabin, and the Arab parties continued to be vilified and have not been included since then. This time around, portions of the right-wing Zionist parties appear to be more open to such a scenario, but this attitude may very well change if the Arab parties support the anti-Netanyahu bloc in forming a government. Finally, the fact that at most the Arab parties will be allowed to support an Israeli government from the outside displays that the inherent tension between the Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel still runs deep. Such a governmental structure implies that the Arab parties are still on the outside of what is considered the mainstream, and thus so will the overall aspirations of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

However, all this being said, the only way to move towards political integration is to take a step forward and include the Arab parties in a government by allowing them to back it from the outside. Such a government would almost certainly produce material benefits for the Arab communities of Israel, and would likely encourage more Palestinian citizens of Israel to vote in upcoming elections and become more engaged in Israeli civil society if they feel their voices matter in Israeli politics. Moreover, with the decline of the Zionist center-left, they will almost certainly need the support of the Arab parties to form governments in the future. The situation is not an endpoint for political integration of the Arab citizens of Israel, but it could be a significant steppingstone in the right direction.


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Jacob Lewis is a senior studying Political Science and Israel at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.