The healthy presence of Arab-Israeli parties in the Knesset is an enduring challenge for major parties of the center-left. In order to win and form a coalition, conventional wisdom and political math suggest that those parties need to win over a significant chunk of “soft right” voters who will never risk a government dependent on, or even just inclusive of, anti-Zionist Arab parties. What this means is that while the Likud-led bloc of parties starts off on election day with 0 seats, the opposition begins with -12 or -13. Of all the reasons to be cynical about Israeli politics and resign oneself to the continued dominance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud, this one is probably the most compelling.
But there are fortuitous signs of change, even if they probably won’t matter much for the next election, which will take place in November 2019 if the current coalition finishes its term (highly unlikely).
Municipal elections in late October resulted in some surprising and encouraging results in much of the country. Perhaps the most prominent was in Haifa, where the Labor Party’s Einat Kalisch-Rotem became the city’s first woman mayor in a stunning landslide, ousting a longtime incumbent.
After the election, she signed a City Council coalition agreement with Hadash, the secular constituent party of the Arab faction Joint List. While inconceivable on the national level, where issues of diplomacy and security predominate, Arab parties often participate in governing on the local level. Keeping streets clean, budgets balanced, and roads safe can usually happen without provoking arguments about Zionism or the occupation.
However, Haifa was soon thrown into national controversy. The Hadash representative chosen to represent the party in the rotating position of deputy mayor, Raja Zaatry, had a history of provocative statements, including comparing Zionism to the ideology of the Islamic State (IS). He was also accused of harboring sympathies for Hamas and Hezbollah, which Zaatry has strongly denied. While there is no evidence he supports those groups’ violent anti-Semitic aims, he has referred to them as ‘resistance’ movements.
If the main concern about keeping parties like Hadash out of government is security, the rage against Zaatry – led by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Netanyahu – was senseless. As the journalist Shlomi Eldar writes, “Zaatry’s views about Hamas and Hezbollah are not necessarily unusual among Israel’s 20% Arab minority.” After all, why would Israelis of Arab-Palestinian descent have similar views to Jewish citizens? They are an historically marginalized group whose family members in the West Bank are living under occupation. Most of them may believe Hamas is an extremist organization, but one shouldn’t expect a similar level of revulsion given the weight of prevailing political and historical considerations.
Last week, Zaatry withdrew from the position, allowing another Hadash member of the city council to take his place. What I found most notable, however, was what led up to this pragmatic gesture: instead of jumping on Zaatry and Hadash in order to demonstrate nationalist bona fides, both the newly elected mayor of Haifa and Avi Gabbay, the Labor Party’s national chairman, defended the agreement with Hadash. Rotem made clear that she disagreed with Zaatry’s views on Zionism and asked to him clarify his position on Hamas and Hezbollah, but there was no suggestion that he wasn’t qualified or suitable to hold a local leadership position.
This principled stance from Gabbay and Labor should not go unnoticed. It’s a reversal of the logic that’s dictated the mainstream center-left’s relationship with the Palestinian political narrative: the greater the distance, the less severe the headache. By defending Rotem, Labor drew a much-needed contrast with Yair Lapid, who joined the right-leaning parties in criticizing Labor’s continued support for their mayor in Haifa.
It’s also an argument for Labor as the leading opposition party. A narrow coalition of centrist, leftist, and ultra-Orthodox parties may still be able to form an alternative coalition, but one that includes the Joint List sans certain hardline MKs and the extremist Balad party will be much more stable. It will also help Israel in its efforts to expand relations with the Arab world.
This can be done without jeopardizing Israel’s security. Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi do not want to serve as defense minister. Indeed, they may find it most politically beneficial to not take any cabinet seats at all. And if they do decide to sit in the cabinet, the trend of deciding important security matters in the smaller (and, presumably, exclusively Zionist) security cabinet will satisfy most reasonable people.
Admittedly, this is not an easy sell. Old habits die hard and I expect Gabbay will rule out a coalition with any party in the Joint List. But with the Haifa episode, the ‘national camp’ led by Netanyahu has seemingly moved the goalposts: now, a local coalition with Arabs was scrutinized for signs of impurity. Zaatry’s views on history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be palatable for moderate ears, but they are the views of many of his compatriots. Do they not deserve representation for their communities on matters unrelated to national security, especially at the local level?
The largely uncompromising boycott of Arab parties had questionable electoral value before this. Gabbay, perhaps unwittingly, opened a window of opportunity for the center-left to finally let go of this anachronism. Israel will never successfully force-feed its national narrative to a minority with a strong sense of its own identity. Liberal and leftist Zionist parties instead should promote a vision of pragmatic cooperation in government that will not only improve their own chances of governing again, but will benefit the country as a whole.