Arab Parties in the Knesset Can’t Have It Both Ways
There are fundamental differences between the Israeli Arab political parties Balad and Hadash. The former perceives itself as the representative of all the Palestinian people and rejects the legitimacy of the Israeli government to legislate their lives. It seeks to enlarge nationalist confrontations with the government.
By contrast, Hadash sees itself as the representatives of the Israeli Arab community and struggles for equality within Israel. Its leader, Ayman Odeh, has pursued a reformist strategy of constructive engagement to reduce disparities between Arab and Jewish citizens. So far, Odeh has “threaded the needle,” successfully pursuing his strategy without causing a public rift with Balad that would force a breakup of the Arab Joint List.
Balad has consistently created uncomfortable situations for Odeh. First, it vetoed Odeh’s desire to form a working relationship with Meretz by rejecting a vote sharing agreement before the election. In July, Odeh was forced to side with Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the northern faction of the Islamic Movement, who was accused of inciting Muslims to violence. Never criticizing Salah, Odeh focused his concern on Netanyahu’s rhetoric. After a Joint List demonstration in Nazareth supporting Salah, Nazareth mayor Ali Salam verbally attacked Odeh, saying “You destroyed this city.”
Most recently, Balad created a problem for Odeh when all three Balad Knesset members chose to visit the family of the terrorist killer of three Israeli Jews. This action was condemned across the Jewish political spectrum, including by Meretz. Unlike the mayor of Rahat who paid condolences to the family of a Jewish victim, Odeh simply condemned any act of harming citizens — Jews or Arabs — coupling this with support for Balad’s efforts to bring the terrorist body to burial.
Odeh ignored the statement of Balad MP Basel Ghattas, who said, “To abstain from visiting martyrs’ families who have lost their precious sons in the turmoil of the struggle against the oppressive occupation — they did not go to kill or attempt to kill for criminal reasons — we will have to vacate our chairs and leave the keys and go home.” Instead, Odeh strongly condemned Netanyahu’s threat to suspend the Balad legislators from full Knesset participation.
Odeh’s actions risk alienating Jewish mayors, and he continues to be unwilling to link criticisms of Balad actions with his condemnation of Netanyahu’s responses. Indeed, he remains silent on Palestinian efforts to foment violence, whether manifested in the rhetoric of Sheik Salah or the presentations on Palestinian TV controlled by Fatah. This is in contrast to Eyal Ben-Reuven – a member of the ethics committee from the Zionist Union. While condemning the “very grave” act of Balad members, he lashed out at Netanyahu’s proposed legislation to allow members of the Knesset to be expelled. “Instead of fighting terrorism, Mr. Netanyahu is fighting democracy.”
There have been a number of advances that Odeh should be proud of. In June, Joint List and Hadash member Aida Touma-Sliman was appointed chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality. She became the first Arab lawmaker besides members of Zionist parties to head a permanent committee. After assuming office, Touma-Sliman highlighted the positive working relationship she had with another committee member, Likud MP Benny Begin.
In December, the Knesset approved the largest single budget to improve the situation of Israeli Arabs. Not only was the level of funding unprecedented, but it adjusted the government funding formula that had discriminated against Arab towns. Sikkuy leaders Rawnak Natour and Abed Kanaaneh indicated how important the change in the funding formula was. They wrote,
[The] big difference between this and previous plans lies in the principle of introducing a change in the budgetary mechanisms …as opposed to topical remedies like one-time grants, as was done in the past. This important principle … that the entire system itself needs to be changed, along with the structures that created the institutionalized discrimination and disparities in the first is the main and most important message of the new plan …We are therefore pleased that this time around senior Finance Ministry officials and the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab Sector understood that, and insisted on it.
Instead of heralding these events as furthering the move toward equality, Touma-Sliman seems to have moved into a more confrontational stance. Now she belittles her appointment, claiming that the Joint List received a much smaller administrative role than what would have been allocated if it had been a Jewish party. More troubling is how she views the landmark legislative achievement in the new budget. She stated, “This is a third of what we had suggested based on a five-year plan that we worked out with our experts that estimated there is a need for 32 billion shekels [$8.15 billion].”
Touma-Sliman was quick to add that these development funds will not water down demands for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. She continued,“Ending the occupation is a basic condition for our people to gain equality. As long as the government is looking at our people as enemies, and as long as there is occupation and settlements, the priority will always go to the defense budget and to settlements. For us, the battle for equality and ending the occupation are inseparable.”
Undoubtedly, Touma-Silman believed that she had to make clear that she is not collaborating in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Indeed, it seems mandatory to always make clear that the Zionist state is the enemy. This is why Natour and Kanaaneh had to preface their positive remarks regarding the legislative victory by characterizing the present government “as the most racist ever towards Arab citizens.”
There is a limit, however, to maintaining this adversarial stance in order to thread the needle. Legislative victories require allies and working relationships with members of the ruling coalition. After all, much of the success since 2008 has been the ability to work with Ayman Seif, head of the Minority Economic Development Authority. And the funding victory was the result of working with right-wing Knesset members, including Begin, members of Shas and others in the Zionist camp. Odeh should acknowledge these allies if he wants to strengthen the reformist stance and weaken the nationalist hold on the Arab vision. And if he wants to expand Knesset members who will support his reformist agenda, he must begin to openly criticize nationalist behavior that foments violence.
Criticizing nationalist behavior and recognizing Zionist allies risk splitting the Joint List. However, at some point, this will be the only way forward. Increasingly the Israeli Arab populace and its mayors desire this course of actions and Odeh should follow their lead.