Special Briefing: Israel’s Real Influencers Aren’t Who You Think

Ofer Cassif, Jewish member and candidate for the Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) party that is part of the Joint List alliance, applauds with Heba Yazbak, member and candidate for the Balad (National Democratic Alliance) party as Osama Saadi, member and candidate for the Arab Movement for Change (Taal) party raises his hands

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Why you should care

Because minority communities always matter.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on power was dealt a blow this week after his Likud Party failed to secure a majority in repeat elections. And despite declaring victory, rival Benny Gantz didn’t do much better. But while the two men jockey for an edge in coalition talks, it’s a third faction that perhaps deserves the most attention — not much-vaunted kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman, but Israel’s four-party Arab alliance. Smashing pre-election expectations, the so-called Joint List is now the third-largest grouping in parliament.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he addresses supporters at his Likud party’s electoral campaign headquarters early on September 18, 2019.

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Why does it matter? With his group securing at least 13 spots in the 120-seat legislature, leader Aymen Odeh could become the man to watch. While the prospect of the Joint List signing onto a unity government seems unlikely — since Gantz also supports retaining Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Territories that are widely viewed, internationally, as illegal — there’s a chance Odeh could become Israel’s first Arab opposition leader. That’s still far from assured, but it’s part of a larger undeniable fact that’s likely to transform Israel’s socio-political landscape: Arabs are poised to wield more influence than ever before. 

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

On the margins. Although comprising 20 percent of Israel’s 9 million-strong population, Arabs never had much of a voice. Especially under a Netanyahu-led government that’s prioritized security — and demonized Arabs, especially in the lead-up to this week’s vote — they’ve faced widespread discrimination. Sandwiched between Netanyahu’s pledge to annex parts of the West Bank and President Donald Trump’s own hard tack on the Palestinian Territories, they’ve also been painted as a pro-Palestinian fifth column. That, combined with scattered political parties, helped promote voter apathy; less than half the Arab electorate turned out to vote during elections in April. But pointing to Netanyahu’s anti-Arab incitement as votes were being counted, Odeh said: “There’s a limit.” That’s largely why turnout was up 11 percentage points.

New perks. As opposition leader, Odeh would enjoy privileges that, until recently, would’ve been unimaginable for an Israeli Arab. Besides receiving a state-funded bodyguard and access to security briefings, he’d hold monthly meetings with the prime minister — as well as earn the right to deliver a rebuttal after the leader addresses the Knesset. But not so fast, observers say: Other opposition parties have enough votes to prevent Odeh from becoming opposition leader, a scenario that seems more likely. Still, others believe this week’s results send a resonant message to young Arabs aspiring toward a political future: that they can have a meaningful voice in the legislature. That’s priceless during a time when Israel, hobbled by accusations of human rights violations and political corruption, is coming under increasing fire for its undemocratic tendencies. 

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Palestinians hold portraits of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman head of Yisrael Beitenu party

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Reaching out. To be sure, the Joint List still faces massive limitations. At its core, it’s still a predominantly non-Jewish alliance that supports what many of its Jewish counterparts don’t, such as evacuating settlements in the West Bank and creating a Palestinian state. That means it’s unlikely to gain mass appeal anytime soon. But with Arab political participation on the rise, that leaves both Bibi and Gantz — or any other future Israeli leader, for that matter — in a curious quandary: Double-down on their appeals to right-leaning voters, or try to curry favor with the burgeoning Arab electorate? That the latter is even a possibility reflects how the election results could prove transformative for the future of Israeli politics.

WHAT TO READ

Netanyahu Must Look Israeli Arab Society Straight in the Face, Not Flee From It, by Ronit Marzan in Haaretz

“The increase in Arab voter turnout in Tuesday’s election could be seen as a kind of revenge for the racist and exclusionary language of the Netanyahu-led right. But it might also reflect a desire for a partnership with Israeli Jews based solely on merit and self-respect.”

Why Increasing Arab-Israeli Closeness Matters, by David Mednicoff in The Conversation

“The threat of Iran and the prevalence of anti-democratic politics is solidifying a long-standing political affinity, and a growing behind-the-scenes alliance, between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Joint Arab List Celebrate Idea of Government Minus Netanyahu

“Maybe we will live in peace — this is what we want.”

Watch on i24NEWS on YouTube:

’What We Need Is Unity’: Israeli Arab Coalition Appeals to Jewish Vote

“It gives me hope that we can maybe build some kind of a new political movement in Israel.” 

Watch on France 24 on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

What’s in a name? This week’s political news might lend new urgency to a debate over another fundamental question: What’s an Arab-Israeli, anyway? While that’s the term for the large minority used by Israel’s government, it’s apparently unpopular among local Arabs themselves — with only 16 percent supporting it. One of the preferred alternatives? Palestinian citizens of Israel.

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