By: Jacob Lewis
On February 18th, 2021 I virtually attended J Street’s event called “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Jewish-Arab Political Partnership in an Unprecedented Time.” J Street is an advocacy group that promotes “US policies that… help secure the State of Israel as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people,” while pushing for a peaceful solution decided upon by Israel and the Palestinians. The person who introduced the moderator and speakers of the event was Abby Kirschbaum, Assistant Director of Public Engagement and Educational Resources at J Street. The moderator of the event was Michal Sherez Shilor, who is the chairwoman of an “unfiltered” narrative website named “0202 – Points of View from Jerusalem” that covers stories in Jerusalem. The first speaker of the event was Dr. Thabet Abu Rass, who is the co-Executive Director of Abraham Initiatives, an advocacy group that focuses on equitable treatment for the Arab minority in Israel. The second speaker was Ron Gerlitz, the CEO of aChord – Social Psychology for Social Change, a consulting firm that focuses on intergroup relations in Israel. Both focused on the developments over time within cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israeli politics. The audience of this event was J Street members and advocates, as well as academics focused on the issue of cooperation between the Arab and Jewish communities.
Joint political initiatives between the Arab and Jewish communities in Israel are a rare and complex occurrence, so I will focus on two aspects of the conversation between Abu Rass and Gerlitz that struck a chord with me. The first of these is the struggle for Arab political legitimacy within Israel’s political system. Abu Rass pointed out that the only time where Arabs have been included in the governing of Israel was when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin needed their support from outside the government to pass the Oslo Accords. Since Rabin’s assassination and the Second Intifada, an even wider rift along security issues has appeared between Jewish and Arab society in Israel, and that also affects political cooperation. Gerlitz mentioned that Prime Minister Netanyahu has worked since being opposition leader during Rabin’s government to weaken the political power of the Arabs in Israel and prevent them from forming a government with the center-left Zionist parties. Nonetheless, the Arab community in Israel seeks legitimation within the Jewish-dominated Israeli political scene. Both Abu Rass and Gerlitz believe that this process runs through cooperation between the Arab and Jewish political parties in the Knesset, specifically mentioning the Joint List.
This brings me to the second aspect of the discussion that I thought was of particular importance, being where things might stand regarding political cooperation between Arabs and Jews after Israel’s election in March. Both Abu Rass and Gerlitz agreed the Arab parties will likely emerge from the next election with less political clout. The Joint List has split with the Islamist faction choosing to run on its own due to its socially conservative views, its belief that Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List, is not doing all he can to materially help the Arab community in Israel, and because they might recommend Netanyahu to be the next prime minister. Unfortunately, the splitting of the Joint List and a growing boycott movement against the election in the Arab community has led to a likely 10-13% voter turnout drop-off in the Arab community from the last election, according to Abu Rass. Both speakers see growing opportunities for Arab-Jewish cooperation. In the 2015 Israeli election, the center-left Labor Party did not publicly discuss cooperating with the Joint List, but since then most of the Joint List recommended Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to be Prime Minister after the September 2019 election and then all of the Joint List did so after the 2020 election. Gantz eventually brokered a unity government with Netanyahu without the Joint List, largely due to the objection of Blue and White Knesset members Zvi Hauser and Yoaz Hendel, but nonetheless this is a big step. Now, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid is openly saying he will accept the Arab parties’ support of the next Israeli government, and other Zionist leaders including Netanyahu are campaigning in Arab towns and cities for the Arab vote. What will come of the election is unknown, but things are slowly changing in this area of collaboration.
I generally agreed with everything that Abu Rass and Gerlitz proposed in their discussion. In order to legitimate the Arab minority in Israel’s society, as defined by its Jewish character, it is necessary for the Jewish-Zionist parties in the Knesset to integrate the Joint List and other Arab parties into the government. This would almost certainly mean support from the outside, but that is a step forward. It seems unlikely that the partners the center-left must work with to form a government after this election will allow such collaboration to occur, but it may be necessary for them to oust Netanyahu as prime minister. If Israel wishes to be a democratic society, there must be equal treatment for all its communities, including political integration.
“About.” aChord. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://en.achord.huji.ac.il/about.
“About Us.” Abraham Initiatives. 2021. https://abrahaminitiatives.org/about-us/team/.
Holmes, Oliver. “Netanyahu narrowly ahead in consultations with all parties.” The Guardian, September 23, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/23/israel-boost-for-netanyahu-as-three-arab-politicians-refuse-to-back-rival.
“J Stream.” J Street. 2021. https://jstreet.org/j-stream/#.YC_EzuhKhPY.
“Michal Sherez Shilor.” ROI Community. Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. Accessed February 19, 2021. https://www.schusterman.org/users/michal-sherez-shilor.
Wootliff, Raoul. “Entire Joint List backs Gantz as PM, heralding possible center-left government.” Times of Israel, March 15, 2020. https://www.timesofisrael.com/entire-joint-list-backs-gantz-as-pm-heralding-possible-center-left-government/.
Jacob Lewis is a junior studying Political Science and Israel at American University. He loves to write, edit, cook, play guitar and violin, and do community service. He is active in AU Hillel, teaches Israeli Cooking at Washington Hebrew Congregation, and is the Business Manager of the TenLi Tunes a cappella group. He is also the president of AU’s chapter of Alpha Phi Omega. Jacob is an avid follower and analyst of Israeli politics and elections.