To fight anti-democratic legislation, Palestinian citizens must unite

As Israel’s right wing escalates its attempts at silencing Israel’s Palestinian minority, Ran Greenstein offers the Arab street an alternative approach at fighting back. 

By Ran Greenstein

“At the end of every sentence you say in Hebrew there’s an Arab with a hookah” (Meir Ariel, a Song of Pain)

There is no Israeli politician, past or present, for whom this phrase is more applicable than Avigdor Liberman. His brainchild, the Governance Law, which was adopted by the Knesset earlier this week, raises the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%. This may not seem a lot, but had it been in effect at the time of the 2013 elections, it would have eliminated three small parties currently represented in Israel’s parliament. Given that two of these parties represent Palestinian citizens, and that Liberman was the main sponsor of the law, it is reasonable to assume that such an outcome was precisely the intention behind the law. A third party representing Palestinians would have just managed to pass the bar, though its supporters would have suffered very anxious moments during the elections period.

Of course, there is nothing in the letter of the law that applies specifically to Palestinians. Parties representing small Jewish constituencies would be affected in the same way. In a diverse society with many ethnic, religious and national minorities, a law of this nature is bound to have negative impact on the ability of groups to gain electoral representation. Thus, it would have a clear anti-democratic effect. That its most likely impact would be to reduce the parliamentary presence of a national minority, already subjected to formal and informal discrimination, would make the harm even greater.

MK Hanin Zoabi (photo: Oren Ziv/
MK Hanin Zoabi (photo: Oren Ziv/

In the face of such an obvious assault on democracy, what is to be done?

Setting aside efforts to change the law, which are likely to continue, the obvious course of action would be to present a united list that would face no problem crossing the 3.25% threshold. But how can such unity be achieved if it has proved impossible so far? How can the constituent elements overcome their existing differences? What do the communists of Hadash, the secular nationalists of Balad and the Islamists of the United Arab List really have in common, asks Noam Sheizaf, “save for being Palestinians?”

The answer seems to stare us in the face: they are indeed Palestinians living in the State of Israel – the “nation state of the Jewish People.” And, they are culturally and historically related to non-citizen Palestinians under Israeli military rule in the West Bank and those in the diaspora, the eternal Others of the Jewish state. In this sense, all of them face the same challenges: political exclusion, second class citizenship, social and cultural marginalization, smaller municipal budgets, inferior state facilities, lower access to jobs and services, and being treated as a permanent security threat. In short, they are strangers in the land of their birth. This – and not merely the ethnic identity they happen to share – is the basis for a common agenda and potential political mobilization.

Having common concerns is a necessary but not sufficient condition for joint action. It is normal for ethnic and national communities to show internal diversity, to have a range of views on issues that are of relevance to their members, to organize on different bases reflecting the variety of social positions that divide members from each other, and to adhere to different religions, perspectives, interests. In these respects Palestinians in Israel exhibit a high level of social and political diversity, expressed in sharp contestation at the local level (as witnessed for example, in the acrimonious, recently-decided elections in Nazareth). Under normal circumstances this would prevent them from forming a single political movement with a united platform.

The circumstances are not normal, however. Spearheaded by Liberman and his political allies, Palestinian citizens have been facing a coordinated attack from the right wing several years now. The Jewish political mainstream is either complicit in the attack or is watching from the sidelines, without making any attempt to block it. A flurry of recent parliamentary initiatives – the Nakba law, the loyalty oath law, the boycott law, the restriction on residence rights of Palestinian non-citizen spouses, the campaign to restrict funding to NGOs that challenge Israel as a Jewish state and even to prohibit their registration altogether – all these clearly target the Palestinian population and its progressive Jewish allies. The Prawer Plan and the ongoing efforts to destroy the capacity of Bedouin citizens to live independently on their land are a key component of this onslaught. The onslaught is accompanied by the work of civil society organizations such as Im Tirzu and its loyal media mouth-pieces, as well as by the involvement of the security services, which harass activists whose protest “pose a threat to state security.”

It may not be obvious, especially to people based outside of Israel, but the anti-Palestinian campaign is more a sign of weakness rather than strength. It is motivated by fears for the loss of the unquestioned Jewish-Zionist hegemony, and discomfort with the growing presence of Palestinian citizens in workplaces, universities, media, and the public domain in the last 20 years. Improved educational and job-related skills have seen a movement into social positions and residential areas that used to be the exclusive preserves of Israeli Jews, such as the medical field and service industries. Towns such as Nazareth Illit and Karmiel, founded as Jewish alternatives to Arab Nazareth and surrounding villages, have large and growing Palestinian populations, despite racist campaigns to block them from moving there. In the streets of a growing number of Haifa neighborhoods, one can hear more Arabic (and Russian) spoken than Hebrew, despite the fact that the latter is the lingua franca of the residents.

Let there be no mistake here: people of different backgrounds do not live together in an idyllic inter-communal harmony, but they do live together. Not everywhere and not without problems, but in more places than before and on more equal terms. This has given rise to anxiety among Jews living in close proximity to Palestinians, many of whom are Russian immigrants who form, not surprisingly, the power base of Liberman and his party.

How could Palestinians take advantage of their strengths and, at the same time, confront the new political challenges? They could learn from the experiences of other people faced with similar challenges that forced them to unite on a national basis to confront colonial-type domination. The Algerian and Vietnamese National Liberation Fronts, the African National Congress in South Africa and the Civil Rights Movements in the U.S. are all examples from different contexts which offer useful historical lessons. To be sure though, they were not electoral fronts, and their military aspects are not of any relevance in our current context.

Palestinian citizens can draw on their own history as well: the legacy of unity attempts in the late 1950s under the names of the Arab or National Front, leading to the al-Ard movement of the 1960s, should be resurrected. Broken apart by police repression, undermined by internal factionalism, and disrupted by regional conflicts pitting Nasserist nationalists against Soviet-aligned communists, it was the first major attempt to forge political unity in the post-Nakba period. It failed. And yet, given the difficult circumstances of those days, it was a remarkable achievement and some of its aspects deserve further study and reflection.

What is to be gained from this strategy? If the parties representing Palestinian citizens combined their votes in 2013 they would have reached 4th place, behind Labor and ahead of Jewish Home and Shas. A bloc of 12 members would have entitled them to parliamentary rights such as committee chairs/members that they do not have today. They would have acquired a strong voice, making it nearly impossible to ignore them. Of course, some people who voted for one of the three lists would not vote for a united one. However, if a unified choice became available, those who refrained from participating in the elections altogether might reconsider. In addition, the dynamism of the campaign could generate new mass energy whose repercussions for political mobilization would go beyond mere electoral politics.

Of course, there will be costs to such a move, the major one being that an Arab electoral unity might have negative consequences for alliances with progressive Jews. Although Hadash receives the bulk of its votes from Palestinians, it has always insisted on the principle of Jewish-Arab struggle, in line with its roots in the Communist Party (the only force in the country’s history to practice such cooperation, albeit not unproblematically). Its Jewish members of Knesset – Tamar Gozhansky and Dov Khenin – have had an excellent record of progressive work. Practically and symbolically, it would be a disaster to disrupt this model of joint work across ethnic boundaries. This need not be the outcome of a Palestinian electoral front. There is no reason why Jewish candidates could not be included on the list, or why the front should not try to appeal to potential Jewish voters. However, the danger of a retreat behind ethnic walls is real and would have to be addressed. Liberman is counting on continued fragmentation and growing distance between Jewish and Arabs activists as a result of the new legislation. Let us not grant him his wish.

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