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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/ Activestills.org)

MK Hanin Zoabi (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

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.

Knesset raises threshold, putting Arab parties at risk
Why the electoral threshold stokes internal conflict

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    1. Kolumn9

      So.. The common denominator between the various Israeli Arab parties is that they all possess a vitriolic hatred of Israel and that is what they should unify around? Brilliant analysis. This truly would be a revolutionary change in Israeli politics. The Arab party that is formed will be completely different from what came before. Now its MKs will make grandiose speeches against Israel, reject cooperation with the state, and parrot the positions of Israel’s enemies. That will be vastly different from their current approach.

      I for one am terrified of this new reality where Arab MKs will stop making pleasant pro-Israel speeches. The sight of three Arab parties running together, getting 12 seats and then splintering once into separate parties once they have entered the Knesset will cause Liberman endless nights of horror.

      As for the idea that the Arab MKs currently do not have rights to be chairs/members of Knesset committees.. That really exposes you as someone who has no idea what he is talking about. This is surprising since you were once an Israeli and I am assuming can look this information up yourself on the Knesset website. There are members of the Arab parties on nearly every Knesset committee. For example, Ahmed Tibi is on the Knesset Rules Committee and the Knesset Finance Committee. Haneen Zoabi is on two other Knesset Committees. Taleb Abu Arar is on two others, Ibrahim Sarsur is on two others, Bassel Ghattas is on three committees, Muhamed Barakeh is chairman on one and member of another. You get the point.

      Having 12 seats as a single party isn’t going to make any real difference from the point of view of the distribution of committees.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Philos

      Ran, you seem cognizant of the problem of someone from the most dominant group in Israel telling the Palestinian citizens of this country what to do. Just like Ashkenazim telling Muzrachim that they should vote Labour and not Shas has always fallen flat. The message might be good but in the context of societies riven with racism who the messenger is counts just as much.

      Reply to Comment
      • BaladiAkka1948

        Yes, isn’t that amazing. I just don’t get: why on earth do “progressive” Jews (Greenstein AND 972mag) think that Palestinians need their advice, particularly unsolicited, on how to organize politically. If anyone ever doubted that colonialism has deep influence on the mindset of both the colonialized and the colonizers, here’s a good example. What a piece of paternalistic cr.. !
        And the expression “the Arab street” is just so telling.
        PS. By the way, maybe 972mag should include some Palestinian citizens of Israel among their staff instead of speaking on their behalf.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Probably because they realize the fact that “Palestinian” (well, and Arab in general) efforts to date to organize politically have been giant massive failures? But then again, perhaps that is just this colonist’s opinion. For all I know, outside of my closed colonialist mind, the objective reality is one in which Arabs have built a thriving democratic society that leads the world in science, technology and culture, with a capital in the great state of Palestine.

          Reply to Comment
          • BaladiAkka 1948

            Yeah, Palestinians are savages who lived in holes in the groud before the Jews came…. but at least those holes were on our own land. No technological invention can ever make Askenazi Jews natives of the Middle East.
            But thanks for examplifying my point and for confirming that “the white man’s burden” has always been a part of the colonialist mindset.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            I wish you the best of luck. May you never take any external advice and continue on the bright path that has led you to such fantastic heights of social progress and political success at this apex of your society’s development.

            I can only pray that Israeli Jews will one day achieve the level of development and progress that is plain for all to witness in the great, and powerful Arab societies of the Middle East.

            Reply to Comment
          • Average American

            Baladi, well said, nothing can make Askenazi Jews native to the Middle East. For them to come and claim the land is ridiculous. They have to do it by force not by right. But force is fine with them, since they think they are better than you.

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            For all I know, outside of my closed colonialist mind, the objective reality is one in which Arabs have built a thriving democratic society that leads the world in science, technology and culture

            It would take an essay to deconstruct this, but here’s a start:

            1. The USSR put the first satellite in orbit, Apartheid ZA had the first successful heart transplant and Germany circa early 1940’s revolutionized jet propulsion, magnetic tape recording and microprocessor-based computers. Where did you get the idea democracy was a natural companion of technical achievement?

            2. What culture? How many Israeli-written operas are performed around the world? What great Israeli novels are taught in college courses? (BTW, the Bible doesn’t count.) Israelis have the same hand-me-down consumer culture as any other developed country. Now, you have the culture of the old countries of the many immigrant groups, but nothing specifically Israeli anyone gives a damn about.

            Whoever watches “Homeland” notwithstanding.

            3. Arabs are struggling for democracy in their own countries. There are democratic and anti-democratic sides in these conflicts. That’s why it’s not intelligent to throw out phrases like “butchering each other” as if everyone is killing for base personal gain.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            “Arabs have built a thriving democratic society that leads the world in science, technology and culture”

            In no existing world is this ironic statement true and your reply consists entirely of misdirection and whataboutery. Baladi is upset that someone might think that Palestinians and Arabs might need external advice. I explain to him why from the outside it might appear that Palestinian and Arab society looks like a giant swamp. But again, I could be wrong, Baladi might be living in a parallel universe where the Arab societies are greatly successful. I wish him the best of luck in that parallel universe.

            You seem to have taken the position that judging Arab society on the basis of democratic values, scientific/technological achievement, and cultural achievement is insufficient. Perhaps you or Baladi would like to provide to me something, really, anything, that the Arab societies can be proud of? Something tells me that your response will consist of more misdirection and whataboutery..

            Reply to Comment
          • andrew r

            Just the fact you’re saying Arab societies lack democratic values should earn you a do-over in grade school history. The leading western states achieved their version of democracy through massive internal conflict. What was the US war for independence if not a civil war?

            Societies should be judged based on how they conduct themselves vis-a-vis other societies. Western technological progress has a cost, and it’s not being paid by those who take credit for the achievement.

            Reply to Comment
        • Philos

          Not all the contributors claim to speak on behalf of Palestinian Israelis – certainly not Noam Sheizif or Mairav Zolsentein. That being said, I think three or four regular contributors from Israel’s Palestinian community would be great.

          Reply to Comment
          • BaladiAkka 1948

            I wasn’t clear enough: I didn’t think of individual 972 mag journalists (though some would fit in as well….) but rather the fact that 972 mag published this article, and there’ve been others before.

            Reply to Comment
          • Philos

            I think it’s fine for them to publish writing like this that either reinforces hegemonic discourse or is seemingly unaware of it because it gives us, trolls aside, the chance to discuss.

            For example, whilst I still think it’s extremely problematic for an Ashkenazi Jew to be giving advice to Palestinian citizens on how to organize – I do think Ran is right when he says the Arab community is the greatest hope for democracy here. However, it’s up to those citizens to decide if Israeli democracy is worth fighting for on their own no matter how much I pine for a inter-ethnic and inter-communal joint struggle against nationalism and neoliberalism

            Reply to Comment
    3. Bar

      You know what would have made this article unique and important? If the author would have listed all of the positives that Arab Israelis enjoy as citizens of Israel. He could then apply that (factual) argument to propose a positive type of coming-together and re-creation of the Arab political sphere within Israel.

      Imagine how far Arabs in Israel could go if they had supporters of Israel representing them in the Knesset? Imagine how easily a party or two with 6-7 representatives each would be able to join coalitions and influence laws for the benefit of their constituents?

      But no. Instead, we have another “sympathetic” rant that causes greater divisions and sponsors the viewpoints of the Arab politicians who have brought shame upon themselves by openly advocating for Israel’s enemies.

      It’s the totally wrong direction to go, Mr. Greenstein, and I encourage you instead to view this as an opportunity to forge new ground and build a new political reality.

      Reply to Comment
      • shachalnur

        Are you OK,Bar?

        You sound a bit like some one that is trying to convince Palestinians to set up a “Palestianrat”.

        I’m sure that can’t be your intention.

        Have you no knowledge of (Jewish) history?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bar

          Are you okay, Shachalnur?

          It sounds as if you’re comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

          Have you no knowledge of history?

          Reply to Comment
          • Tzutzik

            I agree with you Bar. What you advocate would lead to peaceful coexistence.

            What they advocate is for Israelis in general to stop standing up for Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • shachalnur

            No Bar,I’m comparing YOU to Nazi Germany.

            Read your own post again and replace the words “Arabs” and “Israel” by “Jews” and “Germany”.

            And than you’ll get a very accurate description of what the “Judenrat” was.

            Thank you for the history lesson.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bar

            I guess you have no knowledge of history.

            Seriously, your comments are laughable.

            Reply to Comment
          • shachalnur

            “..listed all the positives that Jews enjoy as citizens of Nazi Germany”.

            “…to propose a positive type of coming-together and re-creation of the Jewish political sphere within Nazi Germany”.

            ” a party or two with 6-7 representatives each…..for the benefit of their constituents…”

            That’s the best desciption of a Judenrat I’ve heard since Goebbels.

            If you think that’s a laughing matter,that’s your problem.

            You know about the Lipstick and the pig?

            Reply to Comment
    4. Anthony

      I just don’t believe it’s “undemocratic” to raise the electoral threshold 3.25%.

      Is there a single other society you think is a democracy that does not have a higher threshold? This is because societies recognise there is a balance to be struck between representing voter preferences and enabling effective government.

      Even with this reform Israel will remain the country with the purest form of proportional representation.

      And, as the article recognises, Israeli-Palestinians could end up with more influence than before if they now start to pool their vote.

      Reply to Comment
    5. I guess the next election is a while away. If 972 could somehow solicit pieces as the election approaches on what the various Arab communities do in response to this law–might that not be informative as well as provide a platform for those trying to so respond?

      Reply to Comment
    6. shachalnur

      Not a good article.

      If you really think these Arab parties should be represented as bigger parties in the Knesset,why don’t you call on people to vote for them as a Jew?

      Maybe these Arab parties have no interest to become one party and be a part of the rigged Israeli political game.

      Jews have been ruling in Israel for 66 years,Palestinians have time on their side,and don’t mind what the occupier does,and they will certainly not do what the occupier wants them to do,like uniting and be one, more manageable ,Kunta Kinté party.

      The Palestinians might opt for peacefull non-collaboration,which at this moment might be the best way to go.

      The intention might be good ,but the result is a paternalistic ill-conceived piece.

      Reply to Comment
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