Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Israeli Elections I: What's With the Arabs?

Israeli Arabs were pretty excited about this election, but not because there were unusual issues. A change in the election law had raised the vote threshold for representation in the Knesset (Israel's parliament), threatening the elimination of the three small Arab parties. The result was that they overcame their differences and ran on the same ticket, which they called the Joint List. Arab voters were excited because for the first time it it seemed possible that there would be a large Arab party in the Knesset.

And so it turned out. Here's a chart from Wikipedia:

Zionist Union786,31318.6724+3
Joint List446,58310.6113+2
Yesh Atid371,6028.8211–8
The Jewish Home283,9106.748–4
Yisrael Beiteinu214,9065.106–7
United Torah Judaism210,1434.996–1

The Joint List ended up the third-largest group, with 13 seats out of 120. In testimony to the enthusiasm of the Arab electorate, they got two more seats than all three combined had in the last election.

So with this new big party, how much power will the Arabs have in the new Knesset? 

Well, basically... none.

You see, the right-wing Likud won the election, and now should be able to put together a coalition of the right and the ultra-Orthodox (everyone from Kulanu through United Torah Judaism in the chart above). As long as the coalition holds together, it doesn't need the Arabs. And the coalition includes some pretty anti-Arab people. As for a Palestinian state, forget it. 

Now let's imagine a different scenario: suppose all the Arabs vote for the Zionist Union. The ZU ends up with, conservatively, 35 seats. It has no trouble putting together 61 seats for a coalition. Arabs represent about a third of the votes for the largest party in the Knesset. Under which condition do Arabs have more power, that or the actual one?

So why didn't they do that? What's with them? First, in Israel there doesn't seem to be much concept of power within an existing party. Rather, if you have a political agenda, you form your own party. As a former colleague of mine at Haifa put it, Israel doesn't have interest groups, it has interest parties. If U.S. politics were like Israeli politics, we would have a party for Hispanics, a party for evangelical Christians, and so on.

Second, and probably more important, Arab leaders seem to prefer principles to power. The Arabs are against the idea of a Jewish state; they want "a state of all its citizens." The Arabs (or the Arab elite) are so attached this principle that they could never vote for any Zionist party, let alone one with "Zionist" in the name.

Indeed, the quest for purity of principle goes further than this: the Joint List said before the election that if the left won, they would support it, but wouldn't accept a cabinet position. One might think that if your goal is to improve the conditions of Israeli Arabs, it would be helpful to have a member of your party as, say, Minister of Housing and Construction. Or at least to have a vote at cabinet meetings. But no; apparently that would be too craven a compromise with the system.

Arabs are certainly entitled to try for a non-Jewish state if they want. They won't get it, because the overwhelming majority of Jews are against it, but they can try. The question is, does refusing to taint themselves with governing make it more likely that they will succeed? Not that I can see. It just makes them powerless in the meantime.

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