Before the 1992 election, Rabin apologized for the discrimination against Palestinian citizens, thus paving the way for a ‘golden age’ in relations between the Arabs and the state. Twenty years later, the ‘Zionist Camp’ and the Joint List can stand to learn a thing or two.
By Ron Gerlitz and Nidal Othman (translated by Richard Flantz)
The Labor Party’s recommendation to disqualify the candidacy of Haneen Zoabi MK was cynical and illegitimate from a democratic perspective, and awful from a political perspective. This move was joined by the militaristic video released by Labor last week. The last thing Herzog needed to do was to delegitimize possible political cooperation with the Joint List. But even after these poor decisions, such cooperation is not only necessary but also totally possible. Such things have already happened in Israel’s history.
The first significant attempt to create meaningful political cooperation between the Labor Party and the joint Arab-Jewish Hadash party occurred even before the second Rabin government. In 1990, when Peres tried to form a government, he acted to gain the support of Hadash for his future government, and the two sides agreed to this in writing. The agreement between the pre-Labor Alignment Party and Hadash, which was made public in Haaretz on June 5, 1990, was the basis for the cooperation with the Rabin government in 1992. The agreement included general commitments to advancing peace, such as “giving a positive response to the U.S. Secretary of State’s questions,” concrete commitments regarding the advancement of equal status for Arab citizens, such as “the government will immediately reschedule the debts of the Arab local authorities” or “[the government] will immediately prepare a plan to finance and install sewage systems in Arab villages. NIS 40 million will be allocated for this purpose in the first year.”
The sky didn’t fall on the Arabs
Peres didn’t manage to form a government. Before the 1992 elections, Rabin went to a rally in Nazareth. With him in the car was Moshe Shahal, whom Rabin relied on in everything concerning Israel’s Arab population. At a meeting we held with him in 2015, Shahal told us that during that drive Rabin had asked him how the Arab vote for the Labor Party could be increased. Shahal, however, thought it would be impossible, telling Rabin that “promises are always made to them and they know that nothing happens. And you, Rabin, are the last person who could sell those promises, because you were the Defense Minister and because of what you said about breaking the arms and legs of Palestinian demonstrators.”
Shahal continued: “Rabin kept insisting, and I said to him, ‘Maybe if a Zionist leader got up and said that we are to blame for the situation of these gaps, it is us who are to blame — that might help. Rabin said that he would never say a thing like that. We arrived in Nazareth, and he surprised me. He got up on the stage and said: ‘We have been in power for 29 years and we are to blame for the discrimination. I apologize and I intend to act to eradicate it.’ Thousands of people stood up and applauded him enthusiastically.” Shahal claims that this promise was one of the reasons that motivated Rabin to act for allocations for the Arab citizens, since it was important to him to keep his word.
More than 20 years have passed. Now there is a near consensus, among Jews and Arabs alike, that the Arabs have never supported a coalition and never will — but that simply isn’t true. In 1992 the Labor Party won 44 seats, Meretz won 12, while Hadash and Mada (the Arab Democratic Party) both won 2. Shas won 6 seats, joined the government and resigned in September 1993 with the signing of the Oslo Accords. From that moment on, the government represented the minority (with 56 MKs), and was supported from outside by the parties that represented the Arab public — Hadash and Mada.
The agreement from 1990 formed the basis for Hadash and Mada’s support for Rabin. These agreements were sharpened (and spoken understandings were reached) in a series of meetings between then-Minister Moshe Shahal and the head of Hadash, MK Tawfik Ziad. The core of the agreements were as follows: the Rabin government would strive for peace with the Palestinians and would advance equality for the Arab citizens, and Hadash would prevent the Right from bringing down the government. Hadash and Mada stood by the agreements and supported the government in every no-confidence motion that could have brought it down. Hadash stalwart Tamar Gozansky told us what happened when they raised their hands to support the government: neither the government nor the sky fell on the Arabs who supported it.
Rabin, too, stood by the agreement. He advanced negotiations with the Palestinians, and his minority government took unprecedented political steps toward peace. It recognized the PLO, signed the Oslo Accords, withdrew from Gaza and Jericho in May 1994, and took initial but important steps to reform the discrimination against Arab citizens — including the shameless discrimination in child endowment — and initiated a new momentum in budget allocations for local Arab authorities. Rabin’s attitude toward Israel’s Arab citizens was a positive one, and the change was felt in both the public discourse as well as in the field. In retrospect, the policy changes of Rabin’s time were not extensive enough, and many promises about closing gaps that had been parts of the agreement with Hadash were not implemented. Nonetheless the change in policy and in the rhetoric was strongly felt. Many in Arab society remember the Rabin period as a golden age of relations in their relationship with the state, even though until 1990, he led the attempt to violently suppress the First Intifada as Minister of Defense.
Both sides kept to the understandings until Rabin’s assassination. Lev Greenberg recently wrote that “with one hatchet blow, the assassination of Rabin drove the Arab citizens out of the political arena.” On the other hand, there is no reason why such a coalition should not arise again. The dramatic cooperation between Rabin and the Arabs was possible because the right-wing Hatehiya party was very close to the electoral threshold but didn’t pass, the Right lost two seats, and the Left and the Arabs had a blocking majority of 61 MKs. This could be possible in the 2015 elections as well, since it is certainly possible that the parties of the center, left and the Joint List will constitute a blocking majority.
Support from the outside
From any civil or democratic perspective, the participation of the Joint List in a center-left government cannot be discounted. On the other hand, even if a poll published last week shows that most of the Arab public supports such participation, full participation in a coalition is not realistic today, since the political leadership opposes it. It would not be reasonable for members of the Joint List to bear the responsibility as ministers for the IDF reinforcing the occupation and denying the rights of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Nor would it make sense for them to sit in ministries and supply quality services to settlers whose Palestinian neighbors live without political rights.
But should the Joint List support a center-left government from the outside, a real and profound change could take place in Israeli politics. It is likely that the Joint List will demand real steps in the sphere of equality for Arab citizens, including an end to home demolitions in the Negev, the Galilee, the Triangle, and in the mixed cities; extension of the judicial areas of Arab settlements; significant budgetary allocations to narrow social gaps — all steps that are not merely declarative or unrealistic, but practical. Their status can be overseen to ensure they are being implemented, and some of them can even be implemented immediately. The Joint List will also certainly demand a beginning of serious negotiations with the Palestinians. The combination of all these can ensure its support from outside, and as long as the conditions are honored, most of the Arab public will support this move. Just as they did with Rabin’s government.
According to head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, the next government will not be ready to include his party in the coalition. But a government headed by Herzog that moves in the direction of peace and equality in a serious way, advances a 10-year-plan to close the gaps between Arab and Jewish citizens, and agrees that representatives of the Joint List also obtain positions as heads of Knesset committees, including on the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, would certainly gain the support of the Joint List from outside the cabinet, even at the time of its formation. Odeh also said that the Left will not manage to return to power as long as the Arabs remain outside the political game.
This is a brave stance, especially after the Labor Party’s disgraceful recommendation to disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi from participating in the upcoming election. The Joint List has behaved wisely, has not broken off its connections or announced that it would not support Herzog as prime minister. MK Ahmed Tibi declared this week that “the situation is definitely ripe for a blocking majority, if this becomes possible. In such a situation we will aim for a written agreement, like the one reached in 1992, between the Joint List and the representatives of the center and the left, in which we will ensure that there will be a change in the situation of the Arab public in Israel.”
Herzog, too, is interested in this. And despite the fact that he is looking toward the center, he is not ruling out cooperation with the Arab citizens. In a speech at Haaretz’s Israel Conference on Democracy, Herzog said the following: “We need to stop the slide down the slope of nationalism and racism, and we need to act together, shoulder to shoulder, with our brothers, the Arabs of Israel, to create real hope and cooperation for a shared life.”
Reducing the chance of war
In our estimation, Herzog sees the Arab citizens as equals and acts accordingly. In his roles as Minister of Housing and Construction and as Minister of Tourism, he acted to implement policies to advance equality for Arab citizens and exert pressure on senior officials. As Minister of Welfare he also managed to initiate a significant push to narrow social gaps between Jews and Arabs.
People say Herzog is not brave enough to go for a minority government supported by the Arab parties. Perhaps they are right. But he also knows that he will not be able to be prime minister without their support. Now he also knows that there is someone who will defend his life if he does do this.
The Joint List’s support for a center-left government will be the best answer to the delegitimization of Arab participation in government — one of the most shameful political achievements of the Right. A straight line runs from opposition leader Netanyahu’s incitement against Rabin between 1993–1995 to his declaration in 2015 that collaboration with the Arab parties endangers the security of the state. In between, a prime minister who dared to strive for peace with the support of the Arabs was murdered. The rest of us were stuck with another 20 years of bloodshed.
A center-left government supported by the Joint List is perhaps not the government of our dreams, but the policies it will lead with regard to both Arab and Jewish citizens, as well as Palestinians in the occupied territories and refugees and asylum seekers will be far far better than the violent, destructive policy led by the governments of the Right. It also has the possibility to bring an end to the occupation.
The chances that such a government would violently attack the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza are low, since the Joint List would not give its blessing to such policies. Between 1992 and 1996, the Israeli government undertook two military campaigns against Lebanon, but never when the minority government was supported by the Arabs (between September ’93 – November ’95). Perhaps the next war can also be prevented this way.
The fact that President Rivlin has openly stated that the Arabs are an integral part of Israeli society, then the time has come for the Left to see them as part of the political sphere, and start reconstructing political relations with them, both in advancing equality and vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Ron Gerlitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality. Adv. Nidal Othman heads The Coalition Against Racism in Israel. This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.