Israel’s Arabs remain key to peace

Israel’s Arabs remain key to peace

Israel’s Arabs remain key to peace
Ray Hanania

If Palestinians are to have a voice in their future, it must begin inside Israel by Arabs who take the initiative to change Israel’s policies. Historically, Israel’s Arab population has boycotted Israeli elections in protest against Israel’s discriminatory policies against non-Jews. That changed in the March 2015 elections, when four of the largest Arab political parties formed the Joint List.
Still, only 63.5 percent of Arabs who could vote — about 440,000 — did so, representing about 11 percent of total votes cast. About 82 percent of Arabs voted for the Joint List, consisting of Hadash, the United Arab List, Balad and Ta’al. The remainder voted for non-Arab or Zionist parties.
The Joint List won 13 seats in the Knesset (Parliament), giving it a significant voice. Four other Arab candidates won seats via Zionist parties. However, the Arab voice in Israel is still weak, due to the hurdles placed on it by Israel, and by its own doing.
Arabs make up nearly 21 percent of Israel’s population, or about 1.8 million people, compared to about 6.5 million Jews. That means the actual Arab vote could be much higher than 440,000. It also means Arab citizens of Israel should also have 21 percent of the Knesset’s 120 total seats, or 25 seats. Arabs are eight seats short of that.
If they could come together in Israel, with one party gaining 25 Knesset seats, they could in theory become the Knesset’s largest political group. That could change Israel’s politics, which is why in 2015 controversy erupted when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his supporters to vote by spotlighting the formation of the Joint List.
He was criticized for fear-mongering, something not unusual in Israel to reinforce racism against Arabs. But last July, Netanyahu recorded a YouTube video apologizing and saying he hoped more Arab Israelis would go to the polls again.
“Before my election, I said Arab voters were going to the polls in droves. I was referring to a specific political party, but many people were understandably offended. I apologized for how my comment was misunderstood,” Netanyahu said following an awkward welcome in Arabic. “But today I want to go further. Today I am asking Arab citizens in Israel to take part in our society — in droves. Work in droves, study in droves, thrive in droves.”
The “apology” shocked members of his rightwing ruling political coalition such as David Biton, his coalition chairman, who said he preferred that Israel’s Arab citizens not vote when Israel elects a new Parliament.
Biton’s comments drew swift condemnation from Joint List member Dr. Jamal Zahalka. “This feels like a scene taken from a horror movie, starring Biton and directed by Netanyahu, who in turn expressed his racism against the Arab minority by saying “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls” on election day in 2015,” Zahalka said.
“No one is doing us any favors. Our voters’ voices on Election Day will be the proper response for these petty and racist statements... We will continue serving our voters’ interests against these racist bullies.”
If Arabs had a stronger presence in the Knesset, they could play a significant role in defining the next ruling coalition. As it turns out, Netanyahu is not the most extreme member of Israel’s government.
He supports the two-state solution, although he continues to stand behind much of Israel’s rhetoric, arguing — as he did on Sunday on the CBS program “60 Minutes” — that the illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are not the main obstacle to peace, contradicting the belief of most of the intelligent world.
Netanyahu turned to the ridiculous example of how Israel “gave back” Gaza to the Palestinians, and how they turned the territory into a launching pad for thousands of rockets to kill Israelis. The reality is that Israel has fired far more rockets, missiles and bombs on Palestinians in Gaza than the other way round.
However, truth, accuracy and facts are absent from coverage by the biased Israeli media and the even more biased mainstream US media, which operate in a tight pro-Israel headlock that silences pro-Palestinian voices and allows American politicians to pass laws that punish American citizens who criticize Israel’s racist practices.
“Unfriendly” media are banned from covering Israel, and critical journalists and columnists are banned from entering the country. Israel has laws that prevent Arabs who are too critical of Israel from running for office, forming a political party or even voting.
The formation of the Joint List is one of the most significant events to take place since the adoption of the Balfour Declaration 100 years ago this November, which allowed Britain to convert Palestine from a Christian/Muslim majority into a colonialist majority of Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Arab world.
The Joint List needs to grow, it needs to win Jewish votes in future elections, and it needs to become true champions of Palestinian rights, statehood and nationalism. Through strategic messaging and public relations, the Joint List could become the single largest coalition in a future Knesset, giving them the power not only to reverse some of Israel’s racist policies but also select the next prime minister.
The only thing keeping Israel from annexing the West Bank is the fear that Palestinians there will join with Israeli Palestinians and vote Israel out of existence. The pen is mightier than the sword, but the vote is mightier than the pen.

• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American political columnist. Reach him at [email protected]

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