The elections for the 24th Knesset: A Turning Point in the Integration of Arabs into National Politics?

In the new issue of Bayan, which is published on the eve of the 24th Knesset elections, Elie Rekhess discusses the question whether the upcoming elections are a turning point in the integration of Arabs into national politics.

בחירות בישראל
בחירות בישראל. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.0]


In the upcoming Knesset elections, the taboo that an Arab party should not join a government coalition is liable to be broken, in view of the crisis in Israeli politics and the balance between the Right and Center-Left.

The Arab camp is showing a historic willingness for political partnership, but the Zionist Center-Left camp is hesitant to establish a coalition based on the Arab parties.

Paradoxically, it is Benjamin Netanyahu who is likely to benefit from the political changes on the Arab street. Although in the past he ran a campaign to delegitimize the Arab parties, today he is embracing the Arab community against the backdrop of a split Joint Arab List.

From a practical political viewpoint, Arab voters are differentiating between the nationalist level and the pragmatic day-to-day level. This is evidence of the increasing “Israelization” of the Arab community, though it is not giving up its Palestinian identity.

During the many years in which the question of integrating Arabs into Israeli politics has been raised in public discourse, the word “exclusion” was usually mentioned in the same breath. The term signified the non-inclusion of Arabs in the political domain and their exclusion from government coalitions. This phenomenon was evident already in the 1999 Knesset elections: Ehud Barak obtained sweeping support from Arab voters, but did not view the Arab parties as possible partners in a coalition. He did not even view them as providing external support to the government as a veto bloc. The Arab parties had fulfilled such a role only a few years previously during the Rabin-Peres government. The observation voiced by Arab politicians during that time accurately reflected that exclusion: “They don’t even give us the right of refusal.”

Twenty years later, one might wonder whether this axiom has lost its place as the “paradigm of exclusion”, if one can call it that. While maintaining the cautionary measure of historiographic perspective, one can predict that the approaching elections for the 24th Knesset—as in the previous elections last year—will go down in the political history of Arabs in Israel as a milestone in breaking the taboo of including Arab parties in the government coalition. We appear to be at the beginning of the process; nonetheless, it is fairly clear that a new integrative trend is emerging.

The background to this change is the current crisis in Israeli politics. Again and again, the election outcomes have produced an almost equal balance between the Right and the Center-Left, without either having the ability to build a stable coalition of 61 seats based only on the Jewish parties. As a result, the Arab parties have grown in importance as tie-breakers.

In the two previous election campaigns (September 2019 and March 2020), two important developments occurred:

  1. Following endless years of ideological and personal differences, the large parties managed to overcome the factionalism that had weakened them to such a great extent. Thus, in 2015 there was a long-awaited consolidation between Hadash, Ta’al, Ra’am and Balad to form the Joint Arab List. The Arab vote was consolidated and the List won a record 15 seat in the Knesset in 2019, to become the third largest party in the Knesset.
  2. The power represented by the Joint Arab List’s 15 seats and their ability to determine the fate of the Knesset created a dilemma for the party: whether to support a Center-Left candidate and to negotiate for a place in the coalition in exchange; or to refrain from participation in the coalition. In a historic decision and after a prolonged internal debate, the Joint Arab List expressed willingness to support the candidacy of the head of a Jewish-Zionist party to lead the government, namely Benny Gantz, Chairman of the Blue-White party. In September 2019, only three of the four factions—Balad being the fourth—that make up the Joint Arab List supported him while in March 2020 Balad decided to align itself with the other factions on this issue.

The Arab bloc has therefore demonstrated a pragmatic approach and a historic willingness to be part of a formal political partnership. In contrast, the Jewish Center-Left bloc maintained the traditional position of the Zionist Left by turning their back on the Arabs. The possibility of creating a government with the participation of the Arab parties was (again) not given consideration and the end of the story is well-known—Gantz joined a wobbly unity government with Netanyahu and as a result, Israel found itself in its fourth elections in just two years.

What deterred the Left-Center from collaborating with the Arabs? The architect who planned the sophisticated and complex political constellation that created the new reality of exclusion of the Arabs—and paradoxically the possibility of their subsequent inclusion—is none other than Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. I will explain this phenomenon in what follows with the help of the insights offered by the highly incisive Carolina Landsmann.[1]

It appears that Netanyahu has formulated a multi-stage strategy. Its roots lie in the election for the 20th Knesset in 2015, in which politically savvy Netanyahu identified the biggest threat to the continued rule of the Right as liable to originate from a Center-Left coalition with the Arabs. Therefore, in the first stage of the plan he initiated an aggressive campaign of delegitimization of the Arabs. In the 2015 elections, it was his famous declaration that, “The Arab voters are voting in droves” and in the elections in September 2019 it was the introduction of monitoring cameras in the voting stations in several Arab towns, justified by an alleged desire to keep the elections honest. The Left fell into the trap he had laid by continuing to issue conciliatory statements regarding the Arab parties but refraining from cooperation with them.

After reducing the political value of the Arabs in the eyes of the Center-Left and widening the gap between them, Netanyahu began the second stage of his plan: to embrace the Arab public, in a kind of reverse flanking move. The main tool he used—and which he is continuing to apply in the current election campaign—is the famous Decision 922. This is a five-year plan of unprecedented size—NIS 10 billion—for the economic development of Arab society which was approved by the Netanyahu government in December 2015. The plan seeks to provide an overall solution to the needs of Arab society in various areas: infrastructure, the economy, land, education and more.

It appears that Netanyahu is currently—that is, prior to the elections for the 24th Knesset—carrying out the third stage of his strategy, after having identified three basic factors that are working in his favor:

  1. The disappearance of the Palestinian issue as a heavily weighted factor in the election arena (thus making it possible to more easily focus on socioeconomic issues);
  2. The lack of public interest in domestic nationalistic issues, such as in  the “Nation Law” which has the potential for getting the masses out onto the streets; and
  3. The continuing—and perhaps chronic—internal weakness of Arab politics, namely internal division and tribalism.

Taking advantage of these factors, Netanyahu sought to drive a wedge between the factions of the Joint Arab List, which from the start suffered from ideological and internal political disunity. Thus, he managed to co-opt Mansour Abbas, the chairman of the Ra’am party which represents the Islamic Movement. The move greatly weakened the Joint Arab List and it appears to be entering the current election campaign like a car with only three wheels—Hadash, Balad and Ta’al—and even those don’t seem to have sufficient air. According to the optimistic scenario, the three-way Joint Arab List will win 12 seats. Most of the scenarios are more pessimistic and there is even a forecast that it will get only get six seats. Of course, for Netanyahu this is a huge achievement, since his only goal is to guarantee that he will remain prime minister and will be able to avoid the sword hovering above his head in the form of the court proceedings against him.

Moreover, in parallel to the weakening of the Joint Arab List Netanyahu is in position to attract a significant number of Arab votes, whether indirectly through Ra’am, Mansour Abbas’ party, or directly by encouraging them to vote for the Likud. This is evident from his campaigning in the Arab towns in the Negev, in the Triangle and in the Galilee, his declaration of the official government plan to end violence and crime in Arab society, and his frequent visits to the public vaccination centers for the Arab population. And he hasn’t yet exhausted all of his efforts.

The Arab politicians claim that the Arab voters aren’t blind and that Netanyahu has not changed his racist positions towards the Arabs. Even if we assume that this claim is correct—and in my opinion it is—in practice, many Arab voters will differentiate between the nationalist level and the pragmatic level of day-to-day needs. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as cognitive dissonance, which is a manner by which an individual deals with an inner contradiction by modifying one’s views to fit one’s actual behavior (rather than one’s behavior being determined by one’s views). This phenomenon has already been described with regards to the Arabs in Israel by the sociologist Yochanan Peres at the end of the 1960s. He explained how a mechanism of compartmentalization has made it possible for Israeli Arabs to continue to maintain their loyalty to Nasserism on the ideological level while participating in the State’s institutions on the parallel pragmatic-practical level of day-to-day life.[2]

In order to ensure that he remains prime minister, all that Netanyahu needs to do is disrupt the Joint Arab List and to squeeze two seats out of the Arab sector. Will he succeed? Time will tell, but as was stated above, these elections are likely to be a milestone in the process of Arab integration within Israeli politics. Ironically, although Meretz—perhaps the last remnant of the “Leftist Zionist” camp—has included two Arab representatives among the first five candidates on its list, it remains firm in its opposition to becoming a Jewish-Arab list. There are signs that other Jewish-Zionist parties are showing a similar willingness to include Arab lists in a future government coalition. The Likud, in contrast, is courting the Arab sector, is negotiating with the leader of a party that represents the Islamic Movement, is making outstanding promises to Arab citizens and is paving the way to the legitimization of the Arabs. It’s almost a role reversal.

In the long run, these efforts will reinforce the process of Israelization of the Arab sector and will help coalesce the Arab middle class, which views its place within the State of Israel and is integrating within it, though without giving up the Palestinian component of its identity. This process represents a synthesis of two elements—the Palestinian component on the one hand and the Israeli component on the other.

Professor Elie Rekhess is the director-founder of the Konrad Adenauer Program for Jewish-Arab Cooperation at the Moshe Dayan Center and Crown Visiting Professor in Israel Studies at Northwestern University in Illinois. He is also the head of IIP, the Israel Innovation Project, responsible for developing scientific and technological collaborations between Northwestern University and universities in Israel.

[1] Carolina Landsmann, “A worrying truth”, The Marker, June 28, 2019. [Hebrew]

[2] Yohanan Peres and Nira Davis, “On the national identity of the Israeli Arab,” The New East, volume 18 (5728 – 1968), pp. 106–111. [Hebrew]