Arab Citizens are Not the Problem: How the 2020 Election Might Redefine the Israeli Political Landscape

In current issue of Bayan, Dr. Ahmad Agabaria addresses the Arab public's mood and feelings following the recent election campaign on March 2020.

הצבעה לבחירות לכנסת ב-2013
Voting in 2013 Israeli Elections. Noam Moskovich (CC BY-SA 2.0 ) from The Israel Project


The elections conveyed a message: The Arab public refuses to be a problem in Israeli society, and strives to return to normalcy.

The 1990s were engraved in the memory of the Arab public as a promising period for their rights, but today the tables have been turned. The establishment doubts the ability of Arab Knesset members to represent their constituents and doubts their allegiance to the state. Many in the Arab public understand that the enshrining national-Zionist identity of the state is directed against them.

The delegitimization of the Arab minority and its elected representatives reached its peak in the recent elections. The slogan "Bibi or Tibi" is an expression of incitement and racism that should be denounced.

The "deal of the century" plan, and in particular its intention to annex the Triangle Region to a Palestinian state, actually contributed to raising the turnout rate on the Arab street. The 15 seats won by the Joint List restored the belief to Arab citizens that change is possible.

The elections of March 2, 2020, filled me with more hope than I’ve felt since Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat sat at Camp David in 2000. What was particularly enthralling about this round of elections was that Palestinian citizens of Israel mustered the will to push back against political frameworks that have ostracized them and sustained their marginalization. For the first time in my life, I felt that my vote counts and that I’m no longer part of the electoral desert. The party that I cast my ballot for, the Joint List, is now the third biggest party in the nation and is primed to play a crucial part in allaying my existential concerns.

What were these elections about? First, these elections sent a resonant message that the Palestinian minority in Israel are clamoring for a return to normalcy. Second, these elections proved that the Arab minority refuses to be defined as a problem in broader Israel society. These two statements should be clear to anyone who pays attention to the Palestinian minority.

For Israel’s Palestinian citizens, or Israeli Arabs, the past two decades have proven unusually challenging, almost unbearable. Violence in Arab locales has increased, the economy has stagnated, and the future has grown disturbingly unclear. They have fallen on hard times, passing fitfully through an inflection point in their tumultuous history. This is due, in part, to Israeli society’s turn toward right-wing politics, leaving the Palestinian minority in a precarious situation: more vulnerable than ever, exposed and mistrusted by Jewish society. When Israel’s economy contracted between 2009 and 2011, Arab citizens felt the brunt of the economic recession. And, when the shaky Israeli-Palestinian status quo was disrupted in 2013, Arabs were marked and looked at with growing suspicion. There was little escape from the feeling that the system is rigged against them.

Slogging through hard times in an increasingly hostile political landscape taught Israel’s Palestinian citizens that the state has completely failed them. This loss of faith was especially pronounced in the past three years, as violence ravaged Arab towns. Many Palestinians believed that the state could have prevented and even reversed this wave of violence. But the official Israeli response came up short, doing too little, too late. This deeply disappointing response re-affirmed that Israel is sticking to its old policy of disregard and indifference. A response that indicates that the state continues to see its Palestinian minority as a problem, and therefore did little to address its basic needs.

Struck by violence that threatens to fray social cohesion, Palestinian citizens were left with little bargaining power. Many Palestinians engaged in self-recrimination that led many, in turn, to believe that they were the source of the problem, rather than poverty, a broken school system, a crisis in public health and a general lack of infrastructure.

In light of these adverse circumstances, Palestinian citizens of Israel demanded to return to the political norms of the 1990s, before Israeli society was swept by a nationalist fervor. The 1990s seemed to have secured and imbedded social justice, human dignity, and mutual trust in Israel. The passage and consecration of the Human Rights Law in 1992 as Basic Law appeared to have launched Israel into promising and prosperous times. However, for Palestinian citizens, the last twenty years has been a process of watching the gains made in the 1990s slip through their fingers. The world they had taken for granted began to shatter.

This sanguine spirit of the 1990s was reflected in the demands of Arab representatives in the Knesset, which were focused on political and economic fronts. Backed by hard evidence, Arab leaders held the Israeli government accountable for higher mortality rates among Arabs, protested unfair economic policy and staggering income gaps, and chafed at educational discrimination. These demands were seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Jewish majority and the establishment.

Today, however, things seem to have turned around. The establishment holds Arab members of the Knesset accountable, questioning their “representational” power, impugning on their loyalty to the state, and publicly singling them out as outsiders to the recently affirmed Zionist narrative. Calling their loyalty in question has grown to the main framing through which to approach Arabs. Against this concerned voices within the Palestinian minority have made the powerful case that the problems afflicting their society are not only the results of discriminatory financial policies at the national level, but also a result of questioning the legitimacy of Arab citizenry and its leadership at large. This is why Joint List party chair Ayman Odeh made it clear that he would not join any coalition before it acknowledges and recognizes elected Arab leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian minority in Israel.

Since the failed Camp David summit in 2000, attacks and agitations against Palestinian citizens have become the norm in Israel's political scene. For many Palestinians in Israel, it was hard to suppress the feeling that the Zionist national identity of the state was weaponized against them. Stirring statements, whether by high officials or demagogues, have normalized the idea of Palestinian citizens as a threat to the Jewish character of the state. As these stirring statements went unpunished, the media had to report them, and in the process, endorsed them as part and parcel of the new Israeli political discourse.

The process of delegitimization came to a head in the last election cycle, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the charge. He repeatedly rallied voters by vilifying the Palestinian minority, treating its leaders with contempt. While elections always contain some elements of antagonism and mockery between parties, Netanyahu’s campaign was particularly spiteful and tinged with racism against Palestinian citizens. His ominous message, “Either Bibi or Tibi,” should have been denounced as a grotesque experiment in incitement and racism. But this message resonated well with many Israeli voters, speaking to their nationalist instincts. Pandering to the lowest common denominator, this message proved reinforcing and contagious. Other parties were compelled to catch up with Netanyahu’s wayward nationalism. Blue and White party leaders, falling behind on the nationalist front, left its connections with Arab delegates in the Knesset, condemning any possibility of assembling a future coalition with Arabs. Not even Meretz, the last relic of the Jewish-Arab Left and the only party that embodied the cooperative spirit of the 1990s, was left untouched by the new frenzy that Netanyahu stirred up. Instead of embracing the only Arab member in the party and reaffirming its commitment to the protection of the Arab minority, it too decided to give up on that dream. These elections were marked by the Jewish parties’ unmistakable disassociation and distancing from the Joint List. This trend is distressing enough, but this alone does not explain the high turnout among Arab voters in the last round of elections.

High voter turnout was fueled by a much more sinister mood that roiled the political climate in 2020. To grasp the political angst that awoke political participation amongst Israel’s Palestinian minority, we have to go back to January 28, 2020, the day President Trump released his Middle East Peace Plan. From his Oval Office in the White House, Trump’s plan promised disaster for all Palestinian people, boosting their participation in the last elections. For the vast majority of Palestinians, nothing good could come from Trump’s peace plan. He endorsed all of Israel’s ambitions, expressing his consent to annex thirty percent of the West Bank to Israel. For me, the most worrying feature of the peace plan was its proposed land swaps in the Triangle region – my birthplace – whose vagueness left me unsure about my future in the state of Israel.

The fallouts of the peace plan enhanced the resolve of Palestinian citizens to take action. On a personal note, I would add that the proposal left me disaffected with the American and Israeli governments. Life for me began to lose structure, status, and meaning. I didn’t know what my next year will look like, what investments I could make, or even what school I could send my child to. Dealing with this uncertainty made me feel as though my life was being torn apart and my identity robbed from me. I can only imagine the toll such instability will take on the health of Israel’s Arab society.

I cast my ballot in favor of the Joint List Party. No other party could appeal to disenchanted voters like me more than the Arab coalition that offered the only promise to put an end to two decades of political despair. The results were dizzying. With a whopping 15 Arab seats in the 23rd Knesset, faith has been restored that change is possible; the election results have imbued Arab society with a sense of empowerment. The Palestinian minority has long said that they see themselves as Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. With their votes, they made it unmistakably clear that they would not succumb to fear and will not let the bullying Right to question their right to live in this land.

In the Triangle, more than sixty-nine percent of voters cast their ballots, marking the end of the era of “dissent,” an Arab movement of non-participation in elections commenced by Sheik Raed Salah in the 1980s. While Palestinian voters may eventually fail to unseat Netanyahu, they have nevertheless succeeded to block and reverse the movement that called on them to renounce their voice by abstaining from political participation. Israel’s Palestinian citizens put up a show of optimism in times of political despair. They have proven that they are a minority that steadfastly holds on to hope. Despite the nasty political campaigns that demonized them, they have demonstrated that they are willing to act to create a new government and new social reality geared toward better co-habitation and integration in Israel.

Dr. Ahmad Agbaria is a Post-Doctoral Fellow 2019-2020, The  Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies, Tel Aviv University.