The rejection of the mostly-Arab Joint List as a legitimate coalition partner, not only by the Israeli right, but also by (at least) three members of center-left parties reflects three concerns: Security-related anxiety, a personal sense of safety and appropriateness, and worries over national identity. These are real concerns, and they should not be dismissed simply as racist. Yet, there are effective responses to these concerns, and a determined and self-confident leadership can and should deal with them. Even if such a coalition will not materialize now, the conversation should continue, as this question will remain important.
First, there is security-related anxiety. Many view the Arab citizens of Israel as a potential fifth column. Israel was born out of a civil war with the local Arab population, and is still around with a generally hostile Arab World. Yet, Israel is very strong and provides effective security, both domestically and externally. It can deal with such a challenge. Moreover, even if Palestinian citizens of Israel identify with the Palestinian people, their involvement in subversive activity against the state has been negligible. Even in the early days of the state, when the scars of the 1947-9 war were fresh, defense officials believed that Israel’s Arab citizens were sufficiently loyal to join the military (IDF). In 1953, then-Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon ordered that Arabs be drafted to the IDF. Thousands flocked to recruitment centers before the initiative was revoked. An interim response to the security-related fear could be forming a coalition in the Knesset that enjoys the prestige of security professionals but leads a mainly civilian agenda. That was the Rabin way: A revered IDF Chief-of-Staff and Defense Minister, who as prime minister was heavily involved in inherently civilian issues such as education and health. The current health challenge even creates an even easier framework for such an approach.
The personal anxiety over a coalition with Arab Members of Knesset (MKs) stems from the repercussions of cultural reservations and the desire to maintain separate spaces (as reflected in polls among Jews) in politics, too. In fact, many spaces, such as the health system, and some governing coalitions in local government are completely integrated. The century-old separation between the two populations is increasingly eroding even in its symbolic dimensions. In 2019, Dr. Haj Yehia was appointed as Chairman of the Board of Bank Leumi, an institution originally established to serve the Zionist movement.
The anxiety over national identity is perhaps the most significant. Many are concerned that inclusion of a non-Zionist Arab party in the coalition poses a threat to the state’s Jewish and Zionist identity. The March 2020 news conference at which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counted the number of Zionist MKs versus the Arab non-Zionist ones touched on this fear. This is a bit peculiar. in most sectors of Israeli politics, ideology does not appear as central as it was in the past. Very few parties, if all, presented platforms in the last few elections. Under these circumstances, the insistence on ideological commitment should be downplayed. A potential, practical solution is to leave unresolved ideological issues out of any agreement with Arab parties.
Second, on the institutional level, a measure of creativity could alleviate the identity anxieties harbored by some in the Jewish public. For example, the Arab parties could support the government in Knesset votes but grant their MKs freedom to vote according to their conscience on certain issues, or they could decide that only some of the parties that make up the Joint List would vote with the government but not all of them. A strong arbitration mechanism would also help in this regard.
Third, Zionist institutions have a history of cooperation with non-Zionist elements. The Jewish Agency, for example, which was the central tool of Zionist development until the establishment of the state, was formed in 1929 as a partnership with non-Zionist forces (although they subsequently dropped out). In fact, most Israeli governments have included non-Zionist elements, i.e. the ultra-Orthodox parties. In recent years, it was Netanyahu who cooperated with the Arab parties on several political measures, such as mobilizing their Knesset support in 2019 for his appointee as State Comptroller.
Additionally, contrary to public perception, there are precedents for the inclusion of Arab parties in coalitions. In fact, up until the 1970s, almost all coalitions included Arab slates such as the Arab Democratic Party and the Progress and Development Party. Many tended to dismiss these parties as satellites of the powerful ruling Mapai party rather than authentic Arab representatives. Still, some of their members (such as Elias Nakhleh) took to arms against the establishment of the state in the War of Independence. But once the war ended, they were elected to the Knesset and led their parties to membership in coalitions. At the very least, this is an important symbolic precedent.
Finally, it should be recalled that great Zionist leaders, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Yitzhak Gruenbaum were committed to minority coalitions in Russia and Poland, that would include Jewish representation. Jabotinsky foresaw the future Jewish state with Arabs among its top political echelons. A coalition consisting of Jewish and Arab MKs members would also be important for Israel’s foreign relations, for example in helping revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and fostering regional cooperation with Arab states. Such a coalition would even have public diplomacy value in deflecting accusations at international fora that Israel is a racist state.
The anxieties over the inclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the coalition are understandable. However, under current circumstances and given an orderly response to the real fears, the Blue and White party led by three former IDF chiefs must and can create a partnership with the Joint List.
Dr. Ehud Eiran is an Associate Professor of international affairs at Haifa University and a Board Member at the Mitvim Institute. He is also a visiting researcher at Stanford University’s Political Science Department.