Examining Newly-Formed Mixed Arab-Jewish Municipal Coalitions

Alexander Jacob Shapiro analyzes the circumstances surrounding the establishment of a joint Arab-Jewish municipal coalition in Lod following the recent municipal elections.

Downtown Lod.  Illustrative, from Wikimedia Commons.  Public Domain.
Downtown Lod.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Living in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Lod for a few months had not made me optimistic about the prospects of improved relations between Israel and its Arab citizens. I arrived to Israel with a commonly held view that political cooperation between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens is unlikely due to their rigid stances on contentious national issues surrounding the Arab-Jewish conflict. In my view, two events last year in particular would impede cooperation: violence between Israel and insurgent groups in the Gaza strip, and the passing of the Nation-State Law, which demoted Arabic’s status as an official language of Israel, reinforcing (to some) the notion that non-Jewish citizens are second-class citizens.[1]

Furthering my doubts about cooperation was my experience on the ground in Lod, where I discovered a marginalized Arab community with scores of grievances against the Jewish majority, which is led by a right-wing Likud mayor and a prominent bloc of Jewish religious nationalists. I found that Lod’s Jewish and Arab populations are largely segregated and have little desire to integrate. I sat at Shabbat dinner with Lod’s Municipal CEO, Aaron Attias, who has once been quoted by saying that his goal is to emphasize Lod's Jewish nature.[2]

I was thus surprised when, following municipal elections in October 2018, local Arab and Jewish political parties joined together to form mixed municipal governing coalitions in Lod and in four other mixed cities: Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa, Ramle, and Akko. This historic union starkly contrasted with what I saw as tense national and local conditions, and constituted Lod’s first-ever mixed governing coalition, placing them ahead of the Knesset in terms of political cooperation.

This development raises the question: what makes Arab and right-wing Jewish political parties cooperate, in the context of the Arab-Jewish conflict?

The answer can be found in the pressing needs of daily life; both Jewish and Arab citizens generally tend to care less about national issues like the conflict, while they focus more on everyday concerns, many of which transcend political and ethnic boundaries. Local politics in mixed cities provide a platform for Jewish and Arab citizens to focus on addressing their shared local concerns through mutual cooperation. I propose that future efforts to improve Arab-Jewish relations in Israel should similarly focus on concrete and locally-based actions that relate to daily issues affecting both groups.

National vs. Local Focus
Academics and the general public interested in the Israeli-Arab conflict tend to focus their attention on national politics, honing in on subjects like the conflict between Israel and Hamas, Israeli settlements, and Knesset activity.[3] Through a national-political lens, political cooperation between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel seems unlikely, as their national issues seem to be insurmountable and of central importance.

However, the formation of a mixed Jewish-Arab municipal coalition in Lod brings the supposed centrality of national politics into question, and points to cooperation on shared local issues.[4] Both Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel prioritize local issues over national ones. For example, polls have shown that both parties think strengthening the education system and economy are more important than reaching peace with the Palestinians.[5] This common belief is a key factor in explaining the formation of Arab-Jewish municipal coalitions in mixed cities in general.

Local politics in mixed cities supply an effective platform for Arab-Jewish political cooperation, as Jewish and Arab citizens can focus on their shared local concerns, rather than on divisive national issues. While national politics tend to hinge on security - "a code word for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”[6] -  local elections are dominated by local concerns like education, infrastructure, the economy, the functioning of local authority, and community development.[7]  Political cooperation is thus harder at the national level, where Arabs and Jews are driven apart by their historically stiff positions on divisive national issues; conversely, cooperation is easier at the local level, where Arabs and Jews can temporarily overlook national issues in favor of addressing shared local concerns.[8]

Arab Emphasis on Local Politics
Local politics are especially important for Arab citizens, who do not feel that their everyday grievances are addressed at the national level and have shown resignation about their efficacy to impact the national political situation.[9] The last ten years saw a “worrying downward trend in the participation of Arab citizens in Israel in national politics.”[10] Today, “representation of Arab citizens in national politics and centers of power is practically nonexistent.”[11] With little power at the national level, Arab citizens across Israel turn to local politics as an avenue to address their grievances. 85% of Arab citizens voted in the 2018 local elections, compared to a 64% voting rate among Arab citizens in the 2015 national elections.

To hold power in critical local arenas, Israeli political parties must join municipal governing coalitions, as non-coalition opposition parties wield little influence. In mixed cities, this means that for Arab parties to have significant power, they must join coalitions with majority Jewish parties.

The Case of Lod
Through the lens of Israeli national politics, Lod does not seem like a likely place for Arab-Jewish political cooperation. Author Ari Shavit described Lod as “the very epicenter of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”[12] Lod’s Arab and Jewish populations live largely separately, and according to local mediator, Dror Rubin, both communities have shown little interest in traditional attempts at dialogue on national issues. Lod’s mayor, Yair Revivo, is from the right-wing Likud party, and his coalition features right-wingers from Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu. Mayor Revivo’s administration is accused of promoting ethnoreligious gentrification by encouraging Jewish nationalists to move to Lod.[13] Last year, Mayor Revivo received backlash from Lod’s Arab community after he barged into a mosque in an attempt to silence the muezzin's call to prayer, an act that was possibly inspired by pending national legislation to quiet muezzins across the country.

In spite of being at complete odds with respect to national politics, Arab and Jewish politicians and senior municipal employees in Lod claim that their shared local concerns are more critical than national issues, and that the parties were thus able to cooperate politically at the local level in order to more effectively address their communities’ shared concerns. According to Abed Alkareem Alzabarga, a city council representative, the Arab community in Lod’s most important concerns are “roads, sewage, flooding, electricity, building permits, telecommunications, and public transportation.” After these primary concerns, he mentioned housing discrimination by Jews against Arabs, followed by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mr. Alzabarga noted that Lod’s Arab parties were thus willing to join the Jewish-majority municipal coalition in order to address their local concerns and “be a partner in the decisions for the future of Lod.”

Baruch Silver, a Jewish municipal director in Lod, agreed that the city’s Jewish and Arab citizens share ninety percent of the same issues, and can appreciate each others’ perspectives on most of the remaining issues. Mr. Silver and municipal CEO Aaron Attias both asserted that Mayor Revivo personally endeavored to create a unified Arab-Jewish coalition to enable coordinated action on shared concerns.[14] After the election, Mayor Revivo said, “I turn to the members of the Arab faction to join the coalition to be partners in the action and to contribute to the wonderful coexistence that prevails in the city.” [15]

Today, Lod’s mixed Arab-Jewish coalition has already acted together for the benefit of the city. The coalition quickly passed the 2019 city budget with no opposition.[16] According to Mr. Attias, Arab and Jewish city council representatives recently joined together to launch a street cleaning project in the Rakevet neighborhood, Lod’s poorest and most dangerous area. Mr. Attias said the city never saw high-level political cooperation like this before the formation of the mixed coalition.

Indeed, this type of cooperation has proved morally and politically difficult for both Jewish and Arab parties. Due to opposition from both sides, there had never been a mixed coalition in Lod, and there has still never been one in the Knesset.[17] Jewish parties that work with Arab citizens are called “weak” right-wingers. Arab parties that collaborate with Jewish citizens are deemed traitors, especially if they work with right-wing Jewish parties who support settlements and armed conflict.

Conversely, Mr. Silver maintained that right-wing Jewish parties and Arab parties in Lod can work together because neither side feels they are betraying their positions on national issues, as the biggest issues in Lod aren’t national - they’re shared by both Arabs and Jews and are related to “how to make Lod a better city.” Faten al-Zinati, an Arab social activist in Lod, said “I don’t want to separate us from the West Bank and Gaza, but we need to do something for ourselves.”[18] And Mr. Alzabarga similarly noted, “We are part of the Palestinian people, and we care about Gaza and the West Bank. But we need to focus on our immediate needs here. I don’t feel that we’re offending our values.”

Lessons and Discussion
The formation of unified Arab-Jewish governing coalitions in five mixed cities across Israel shows that Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens are willing to work together to address shared local issues. One reason these coalitions were able to form was that the parties involved focused on their similarities (local issues), rather than their differences (national issues related to the conflict). While traditional mediation efforts tend to ask participants to discuss the biggest issues of the day, both the aforementioned political developments and academic literature suggest that a more effective tactic for cooperation and peacebuilding is to bring groups together through actions towards shared goals.[19]

This action-oriented and needs-focused strategy should be utilized across Israel to further increase Arab political participation and integration. Such a strategy could be utilized at the national level, as Arab citizens across the country have already shown an openness to Arab parties joining national Jewish governing coalitions.[20] This reflects a growing willingness by Arab citizens to fully integrate and participate in Israeli political life, even if it means temporarily overlooking national issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.[21]

Greater Arab integration could have a number of positive effects for Arab citizens, including: (1) better living conditions and life standards; (2) deepened involvement in society and the economy; and (3) increased sense of belonging.[22] Greater Arab integration can also benefit all of Israel by increasing Arab economic activity and heightening the chances of cooperation and understanding between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens. Situations where Arabs and Jews work together towards shared goals present opportunities to overcome the “sense of threat and fear” that, according to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, “lies at the core of how each side views the other,”[23] and will ultimately set the stage for a more collaborative, peaceful future.

Alexander “Jake” Shapiro (ajacobshapiro@gmail.com) is a volunteer activist and researcher in Israel on the Yahel Social Change Fellowship. For more information, visit www.yahelisrael.com.

[1] Lynfield, B. (2018). Israel’s Knesset is debating democracy itself. Foreign Policy

[2] Ben Simon, D. (2013). Secular, Religious Israeli Activists Flock to Lod. Al-Monitor

[3] Radai, I., & Rudnitzky, A. (2017). Bayan: The Arabs in Israel (12). 

[4] Al-Monitor, 2015; Radai and Rudnitzky, 2017, 13; Haaretz, 2015; Peace Index, 2017.

[5] Peace Index, 2017; Radai and Rudnitzky, 2017, 12.

[6] Zeveloff, 2018.

[7] Alhalabi, 2018; Zeveloff, 2018.

[8] IAT, 2015, 1.

[9] TAFI, 2015, 3.

[10] TAFI, 2015, 3.

[11] IAT 2018, 5.

[12] Shavit, 2013.

[13] Shapiro, 2018.

[14] Tabak, 2018.

[15] Ezori, 2018 (Hebrew).

[16] Ezori, 2019 (Hebrew).

[17] Haaretz, 2015; History of the Knesset, 2018.

[18] Faten al-Zinati works at Lod’s Matnas Chicago, one of the few community centers in Israel that serves Arab and Jewish beneficiaries. For more information, visit here. (Hebrew).

[19] Koonce, 2011; Larsen, 2014; Luhmann, 1979; Schiefer, 2017.

[20] Radai and Rudnitzky, 2017, 16; IAT, 2015, 4; Khoury, 2015.

[21] Radai and Rudnitzky, 2017, 17.

[22] Lavie, 2018, 20; Tatari, 2014, 3.

[23] Shamir qtd in Lavie, 2018, 12.