Why Israel’s Arab leadership is disengaging from the Zionist Left

From the point of view of Israel’s Palestinians, the Zionist Left has little to offer them anymore. Today, the Right’s model of ‘economic peace’ is seen as the lesser of two evils.

By Doron Matza

Joint List head Ayman Odeh seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, November 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Joint List head Ayman Odeh seen during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, November 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The protests against government corruption and the erosion of the rule of law, which moved recently from Petah Tikvah to the symbolic Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, provide an interesting indication of the nature of relations between Arabs and Jews and, in particular, of the process that the country’s Arab leadership is undergoing.

What is striking in the context of the demonstration is the absence of the Arab political leadership from the new social protests (“Rothschild 2”) and the accompanying political discourse. The present reality contrasts with the protests of the summer of 2011 (“Rothschild 1″), in which Arab leaders were publicly involved in the core of the protests that took place in Tel Aviv and elsewhere around the country, as part of the movement’s spread to the country’s socio-geographic periphery.

The 2011 summer protests focused on the high cost of living and housing, issues that highly concern Arab citizens of Israel, who face discrimination in these areas, and echoed the other protest movements in the region and around the world against the neoliberal economic order. In contrast, the scope of “Rothschild 2” is far narrower: a struggle against government corruption. Another explanation for the absence of the Arab political leadership from the protest is the increasing separation of Arab politics from the social-political arena in Israel and the changing relationship between the Arab leadership and the Zionist Left and Right.

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Over the past several years, the Jewish public has increasingly distanced itself from the Arab one, with Jewish politics, and especially the current right-wing government, pushing the Arab population and its leadership out of the political arena. Recent public opinion polling by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Institute for National Security Studies, among others, highlights the Jewish public’s negative opinions of the Arab public.

The regional-security situation — in particular, what has been defined as the “Lone Wolf Intifada” and the involvement of individual Arab citizens of Israel in acts of terror (for example, the attack on the Temple Mount in July 2017) — has strengthened the tendency among Jewish Israelis to increase the level of separation from Arab society. Minister of Defense Avigdor Liberman’s repeated calls for Jews to boycott Arab business both reflects this phenomenon and bolsters it.

The Arab political leadership has been forced to adopt a similar position, evidenced in their boycott of Shimon Peres’s funeral, which was viewed by the Jewish public as a state-oriented, rather than political, event. The Arab leadership’s absence from the anti-corruption protests and its relative silence on the matter further reflects this phenomenon. In theory, the “Rothschild 2” protests and the public debate about corruption and the rule of law are also apolitical, in the spirit of the slogan: “not right, not left, honest (straight).”

The Arab political leadership’s absence from the “Rothschild 2” protests is even more interesting considering the protests are led by groups and figures identified with the Israeli Left. The Arab leadership in this instance is distancing itself not from any sort of allegiance to the Israeli state, but from its traditional comfort zone and political identification; Arab citizens of Israel have long preferred the company of the Left to that of the Right. The Arab leadership has therefore distanced itself from the Arab population’s traditional political home and has turned its back on a potential shared struggle against the Right’s policies toward Palestinians within Israel and in the occupied territories. It appears the positions staked out by the Labor Party’s new leader, Avi Gabbay, with regards to the Joint List have done their work, even if the head of the Joint List has demonstrated patience and tolerance on this matter.

Thousands of Israelis protested against goverment corruption in Tel-Aviv, calling for Prime Minister Netanyahu resignation on December 16, 2017. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
Thousands of Israelis protested against goverment corruption in Tel-Aviv, calling for Prime Minister Netanyahu resignation on December 16, 2017. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

The phenomenon of the growing separation between the Arab public and the Israeli Left is also related to the economic deal struck between the leaders of Hadash, the Joint List, and Netanyahu’s government over the last five years. The deal led to the government’s decision to launch a massive economic development initiative for the Arab population. For the first time since the Or Commission published its findings, the Israeli government, led by the Right, has committed itself to limiting the institutional discrimination faced by the country’s Arab population. The head of the Joint List was deeply involved in the process of designing the unprecedented program, which won the blessing of Arab political, social, and economic leaders.

From this perspective, the Arab leadership’s interest is to maintain the potential for implementing the economic development program, which has already borne fruit in the shape of newly-allocated funds from government agencies over the past year. Central players in Arab politics now have an interest in Israeli political stability. Despite the intense anti-Arab rhetoric by the government, and in light of comments about Arabs that are no less harsh emanating from the Zionist Left, the Arab leadership in Israel has opted to see the glass have full when it comes to government policies.

In other words, the attempt to bring down the Netanyahu government through the “Rothschild 2” protests does not serve the interests of the Arab political leadership at this time. Arab leaders, therefore, have distanced themselves from the protests, at the cost of disengaging from the Zionist Left, which hardly cared about the Arab minority in the first place.

The Right has presented a model of “economic peace” to both Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinian citizens of Israel. From the point of view of Palestinian society in Israel and the occupied territories, this model is the lesser evil: it increases economic benefits in a problematic reality in which Palestinians, on both sides of the Green Line, are barred from realizing the civic and national goals.

Doron Matza is a research fellow at the Forum For Regional Thinking, where this article first appeared in Hebrew. Read it here.