Israel’s government has approved early elections, to be held a year ahead of time. The main reason for this decision is the tricky, party-based political system, which has left the country with no option for an agreed budget for 2013. It strikes me as ironic that while we are embroiled in concerns about Iran, the stalemate peace process, and unstable neighbors, Israeli leaders have decided that this is a fitting time to take a break from it all and hold a very expensive early election campaign.
In the midst of all this, I’d like to focus in on a special community within the Israeli society, and explore how the time might be right for a dramatic change as they utilize this election to express a growing change in their attitude towards participation in the state.
Israel’s Arab citizens represent about 20% of Israel’s population. They have full democratic rights, although for the most part, are exempt from the military service that is mandatory for most of the Jewish population. Members of the Arab community have held high positions in Israel’s courts and other public arenas, and many have even been members of government. In the current outgoing Knesset (Israeli Parliament), there are seventeen elected Arab members. One, Ayoob Kara, is an outspoken Zionist from the Druze community. Five are members of mainstream Israeli parties, and are not commonly heard from. Ten represent four independent Arab parties.
These visible Arab representatives are known to manipulate their positions by focusing on the conflict, siding with the Palestinian cause, or posing as rabblerousers to expose the alleged poor conditions of Israel’s Arab minorities, in comparison to the Jewish community. Some Arab representatives have taken their political immunity overboard by openly engaging and even supporting Israel’s enemies. While serving as elected officials to Knesset and being paid by the state of Israel to help govern, MK Achmid TIbi served as a top advisor to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat; MK Asmi Bashara was suspected of spying for Hizbollah and defected when he was found out; and MK Hanin Zuabi took part in Turkish HNN flotilla to Gaza, and was on deck as its activists physically attacked Israeli soldiers who boarded the ship.
These faces, along with radical Islamic leader Reid Salah, are the ones that Israeli Jews are exposed to in the news media. Through them and their actions, Arab Israelis are seen as a fifth column who would dance on their roofs if Iran were to bomb Tel Aviv. While elected to provide a voice for the Arab Israeli community, in effect, these same representatives are deepening the gulf between their constituents and the general Israeli society. They themselves generate much animosity, and that is their main strategy to maintain their positions as paid leaders of their community. Some Israeli Arabs are now openly saying that they are fed up with being used and abused by demagogic opportunists. They are not happy with their representatives caring for the political agenda of the Palestinians at the expense of their own community’s needs. They have had enough of public activities that cause other Israelis to view them as a threat. Prominent Israeli Muslims have told me that when they visit Mecca, they only need to glance at the garments of those around them who have come from Arab countries to realize how much higher the standard of living is for Israeli Arabs, in comparison.
The Arab Spring uprising in MENA could also be a factor in the Israeli Arabs’ realization that they are actually lucky to be citizens of the Jewish state. More and more, Israeli Arabs are coming forward and openly expressing their wish to be part of the Israeli society, giving their part while retaining their own Muslim or Christian Arab culture and heritage. Recently, Israel National News told the story of Mona Abdo, a Christian Arab woman who proudly serves as a commander in Israel’s army, while The Times of Israel told of Boshra Khalaila, an Arab woman from the north of Israel who travels around the world to tell people that she feels lucky to be an Israeli. Will this coming election in Israel provide a platform for Zionist Arabs to come forth and represent their community in Knesset in a positive light? I hope so.