Tuesday 17 March 2015

The Arabs Hold the Key to Israel's Next Government

The polls are open, and Israelis are flocking to the polling stations to elect the next Knesset and government.  While the opinion polls are all suggesting that the left-wing "Zionist Union" grouping that comprises the Labour and Hatnua parties in a joint list will receiving the most votes, the country is on tenterhooks as to who will form the next government and who the next prime minister of Israel will be.  The reason for the uncertainty is down to the complexity of Israeli politics, and the number of parties that sit in the Knesset.  No single party has ever achieved an outright majority in an election in the history of Israel.  No single party has even come close to achieving this.  As a result, Israeli governments have always been a conglomerate of political rivals that somehow reach a compromise to get into the ruling coalition.  And this is exactly how the next government will also be made up.  Not an ideal recipe for political stability.

The position of the Arab citizens of Israel has always represented a controversial point in our democracy.  They represent a substantial minority (1.7 million out of a total population of 8.3 million, or 20% of the population), despite the fact that their representation in the Knesset has been approximately half of the proportion that they represent in society.  The Israeli Arabs also represent the sum total of all Arabs with full democratic rights in the Middle East, a fact that is often overlooked.  Despite this and the relatively good life that Israeli Arabs enjoy, they have struggled to fully find and assert their identity in Israel.  Much of this emanates from the criticism that they have been forced to endure from neighbouring Arab countries, which have accused them of colluding with the Jews by remaining in Israel.  This has been reflected in their reluctance to vote, and greater reluctance to support Arabs sitting in the Jewish parliament.  It has also called into doubt their loyalty towards Israel, the country that provides them with their livelihood and existence, particularly when members of the Arab community (even those sitting in the Knesset) have publicly shown support for terrorists and for those who seek to destroy the State of Israel.  Some of this behaviour can be regarded as treasonous.

Many Jews have questioned the logic of extending full democratic rights to the Arabs living in Israel.  The decision for this was made many years ago, however, when first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion called upon the Arabs living in Israel to stay and share in the new-found democracy.  With population growth in the Arab sector greater than that in the Jewish sector, there is a fear that the Arabs will outnumber the Jews in the future.  This essentially spells the end of a Jewish homeland where Jews have the right to self-determination.  While it is generally expected that this will happen when the Arab population outnumbers the Jewish the population, I suggest that we have already reached the moment when the Arabs essentially hold the key to determine who will govern the Jewish homeland, and who will be its prime minister.

Out of the Knesset of 120 seats, the coalition requires 61 seats to govern and more in order to establish a more stable government.  When totting up the seats that the right-wing group (Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu) is likely to achieve (according to the most recent opinion polls), indications are that they will have approximately 47 seats.  A similar count  for the left-wing group (Zionist Union, Meretz and Yesh Atid) gives approximately 42 seats.  The religious parties together are likely to garner 18 seats, which they would probably contribute to any bloc that will give in to their specific demands to service the religious electorate.  Even if the left-wing group succeeds in recruiting the religious parties, they still do not have a majority and certainly not a majority that can govern the country.  The missing element is the Joint Arab List, that will command approximately 13 seats in the next Knesset.  If Labour leader Isaac Herzog is prepared to bring an Arab party into the left-wing ruling coalition for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, he could be the next prime minister.  If not, he will almost certainly not be.

The decision to include the Arab list into the coalition is not a simple one.  Israel has had Arab members of government, and even Arab ministers before.  Arabs hold senior civic positions in the High Court of Justice, and in many other governmental and municipal bodies.  All of this has been accepted by the Jewish public.  With the background of the ongoing controversy surrounding the true loyalty of Arab citizens of Israel to the state, however, and especially with attention having been drawn to this by Arab member of Knesset Hanin Zouabi who stands accused of treachery and treason, it is my sense that having an Arab party in  the governing coalition may be a step too far for the Israeli public.  The problem for Herzog is that he is damned if he does, and is damned if he doesn't.  He is likely not to lead the next government if he does not include the Arab party in his coalition, and he is likely to have a real battle against public feeling and emotion if he does.  This is not an easy situation for a leader who wishes to be the next prime minister almost at any price.

Some noises coming from the Arab Joint List may help to resolve this situation for Herzog without him needing to decide.  The leader of the Arab party has indicated that they would be unwilling to sit in a coalition with the Zionist Union.  The reason is that the Zionist Union is a Zionist party, something that the Joint Arab List opposes in principle.  We have previously experienced many examples of parties not being prepared to join coalitions on the day before the election, and then joining that same coalition on the day after the election.  So I would not necessarily accept all of the comments made by the Joint Arab List at face value.

It seems that even those who predicted that the Arabs would hold influence over the Jews in their own homeland, could not have anticipated that the influence would come in this way and at this time.  This situation arises partially from the law change to the minimum threshold required to get into the Knesset which forced the smaller Arab parties to unite into one list, and partially from the style of Israeli politics that gives undue power to the smaller parties.  And while I predict that the Arab party will not be in the government and that Herzog will not be prime minister, it does give immense food for thought about how this will play out in future elections.  These are probably nearer than we would like them to be.

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