Israel's Arabs unite ahead of the March 17 elections

With the Israeli elections scheduled for March 17, much of the attention has been devoted to the impact of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the United States and the coalition of center-left parties known as the Zionist Union that is challenging Netanyahu's Likud party.

Much less attention has been devoted to a development that may herald a consequential long-term shift in the Israeli political landscape: the recently established alliance of four small, largely Arab-backed parties -- the Balad party, the Islamic Movement, the Arab Movement for Renewal, and Hadash, an Arab-Jewish socialist party.

These four parties, which include Muslim, Christian, Druze and even Jewish Communist candidates, have named their alliance the Joint Arab List, and projections are that they will win 12 to 14 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, making them the third largest bloc after Likud and the Zionist Union.

This new alliance is the result of two right-wing Israeli initiatives that attempt to exclude Arab citizens of Israel from the Israeli political system. The first is a law penned in 2014 by hardline Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman that increased the electoral threshold from 2 percent to 3.25 percent, meaning that a party would need to get 3.25 percent of the vote in order to qualify for a Knesset seat.

Arab party leaders understood that if were they to remain disunited and squabbling, they faced the real danger that none of them would pass the threshold and that they could end up with no seats at all in the Knesset.

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The second exclusionary initiative was a 2014 bill, pushed by Netanyahu, that sought to fully enshrine in law Israel's status as the national Jewish homeland -- a move non-Jewish Muslim, Christian and Druze citizen minorities said could erode their rights and which rights groups slammed as undemocratic.

Israel's Arab-Palestinian citizens are descendants of the 160,000-some Palestinians who were not forced out or did not flee after the creation of Israel in 1948. Today, they number 1.3 million Israeli citizens, making up 20 percent of Israel's population. To put this into perspective, they make up a larger proportion of the Israeli population than the 13.2 percent that African-Americans make up of the U.S. population.

Their minority status is aggravated by institutional discrimination that has relegated Arab-Palestinian citizens to the second-class citizenship.

This discrimination has an added level of complexity. It is tied into feelings of ambivalence toward the Israeli state of which they are citizens. They are Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel for whom the wounds of 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars are still fresh.

The result until now has been political schizophrenia. Palestinian-American citizens want to remain part of the Israeli state because they understand and appreciate even the marginal benefits of living in a society that is more democratic than surrounding Arab ones, but at the same time, they retain strong ties with their Palestinian brethren in the occupied territories and strongly identify with their dreams of a Palestinian state.

The passage of time and the coming to age of a newer generation of Israel's Arab-Palestinian citizens has put things into sharper focus. No personality more exemplifies this generational change than the charismatic head of the Joint Arab List, 40-year-old attorney Ayman Odeh.

Odeh believes that the unprecedented union among Israel's Arab parties could transform Israeli politics through a dramatically increased Arab turnout at the polls, predicted to match the national average of 66 percent.

Just as important, Odeh's inclusive leadership signals a new confidence among younger Arabs less conflicted than their parents and grandparents about their place in Israel and more willing to assert their full rights as citizens of the Israeli state.

Odeh burst onto the Israeli political scene in a TV debate ahead of the March 17 elections. During the debate, Lieberman repeatedly tried to provoke Odeh, the only Arab at the table, claiming Arab politicians "represent terror groups" seeking to destroy Israel from within and berating him as a "fifth column."

Odeh refused to take the bait, pointing out instead with a smile that his alliance is running well ahead of Lieberman's struggling faction, with polls predicting the Joint Arab List could emerge as the third largest group in parliament.

Speaking in Hebrew, Odeh, who is Christian, said he is deeply rooted in the region and casually underscored his ties to the Holy Land by citing from the Old Testament's Book of Proverbs: "He who digs a pit [for others] will fall into it."

Even with a sizable 12-14 Knesset seat bloc, the Joint Arab List is unlikely to join the necessary Israeli coalition needed to cobble together the 61 out of 120 Knesset seats necessary to govern.

"The agenda of any government will be a Zionist agenda. It will continue with the occupation; it will continue with the settlements," Odeh told The Associated Press. "We can't be part of such a government."

Instead, Odeh foresaw the Joint Arab List as leading the parliamentary opposition, with its legislators able to demand membership in important committees.

"The very fact that the ticket was put together, even if under duress," declared Israel Shrenzel of Tel Aviv University's department of Arabic and Islamic studies, "offers hope for a renewed positive momentum in Jewish-Arab relations."

Shlomo Sand, a professor emeritus of history at Tel Aviv University, opined: "Those for whom the concrete Jewish memory, not the mythological one, is dear to their hearts, must vote for the Arab Israeli minority. Anyone who remembers that in the distant and recent past Jews lived as humiliated subjects, second-class citizens and suspect neighbors must identify with whomever is persecuted today by voting for the Joint List of Arab parties."

Through active participation as equal citizens in the Israeli political system by Israel's Arab-Palestinian citizens, the Israeli state can become a democracy for all of its citizens, regardless of faith or ethnic origins.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

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