The surprising success of the Palestinian Joint List in the September 17 election, winning 13 seats and being courted a little bit by Jewish Israeli leaders, has fired the imagination of American liberal Zionists. After years of the Israeli government going further and further right, including in this election, the liberal Zionists finally have a positive trend to believe in: that Israel can actually be a democracy, in which the Palestinian minority, who are 20 percent of the country’s people, wields real power.
This is of course still a hope. The Joint List is excluded from coalition horse-trading and is regularly derided. The leading vote-getter, the centrist Blue White party, which the Joint List endorsed, promises it won’t include the Palestinians. The kingmaker in the election, Avigdor Lieberman, is a “fascist” who says that the Arab parties are the “enemy.” The prime minister, Netanyahu, calls the Palestinian political parties “terrorists” and “violent,” a complete lie which is arguably a kind of blood libel.
Excluding 20 percent of the population from participating in the government because of who they are is electoral apartheid — although today’s New York Times account of the post-election maneuverings left out this discrimination and made Israel sound like a robust democracy.
Still, liberal Zionists in America are seeing the upside of the election. Palestinian turnout was close to 60 percent, up about one-fifth from the last election in April. The Palestinians were enraged by Netanyahu’s race-baiting, and they took action by going to the polls.
The New Israel Fund is exultant. Its CEO Daniel Sokatch writes of a “vision” of “New Beginnings” for Israel:
[T]here are real reasons for hope. We can take heart from the fact that, in the face of a campaign of intimidation and incitement, Arab citizens of Israel were not bullied into silence. They found their voice and cast their votes.
After the election, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List… reached out to Jewish Israelis to work together to build a better country for everyone…
What a vision: that perhaps it is Israel’s minority citizens, Palestinian-Israelis, long discriminated against and marginalized, who will be the cornerstone of a new and brighter chapter for Israeli democracy.
The New Israel Fund is devoted to the idea that Israel is a democracy, and it worked to get Palestinians to the polls. Libby Lenkinski of that group deplored the racebaiting by Israeli leaders, and today quotes a Haaretz writer imagining that if Palestinian turnout reached 70 percent “even Likud will talk differently and think about the impact of their words on Arab voters.”
The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street is also celebrating the Joint List’s success. It announced yesterday that Ayman Odeh would speak at its conference in October. Odeh addressed J Street two years ago — and got a rock star welcome from the mostly-Jewish crowd.
Evan Gottesman at the Israel Policy Forum also imagines a more equal future flowing from the Joint List’s success. He says that for 30 years, Israeli political culture accepted the idea that only a “Jewish majority” gives the government legitimacy. But Gottesman says this is a racist notion cultivated by the right wing, to which the center bought in.
This past weekend offered a glimpse, however brief, into what may be possible once Netanyahu exits the political scene: three Israeli Arab parties from the Joint List recommended Benny Gantz to be prime minister. This was only the second time in Israel’s history that independent Arab parties recommended a Jewish-Zionist politician to be prime minister, and the first time since 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin took office. . .
Netanyahu and his ideas have held a central place in the Israeli political mainstream for over a quarter of a century, not only on the right, but on the center and left as well. One such idea is that an Israeli government must rely on a “Jewish majority” in order to be legitimate, which, by his own admission, has no legal basis. Netanyahu first advanced this argument as opposition leader in the 1990s in order to undermine Prime Minister Rabin, whose coalition depended on support from the Arab-Jewish communist party Hadash and the now-defunct Arab Democratic Party. . . .
In 1999, Labor’s Ehud Barak won 95 percent of the Israeli Arab vote in direct elections for the premiership. Yet unlike Rabin, Barak shunned the Arab parties once he set about forming a government, in effect internalizing Netanyahu’s “Jewish majority” concept…
Gottesman points out that Labor leaders Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay also promised to spurn the Joint List in government. Still, he’s hopeful.
Steps toward better integrating Arab parties in Israeli political life won’t suddenly extricate Israel from the occupied territories or fully resolve Jewish-Arab tensions within Israel itself. But the past week’s developments do demonstrate that with Netanyahu’s future uncertain, the prime minister’s rivals may be willing to break down the strictures he set and begin to start anew.
Of course none of these liberal Zionist groups really represents Palestinians, who have often boycotted elections. J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the Israel Policy Forum are attached to a Zionist state that ethnically cleansed Palestinians when it was established, then kept Palestinians under martial law for 19 years, and has maintained discriminatory land practices on a racial basis from the start.
Last summer those three groups were among the Jewish organizations that launched a “Progressive Israel Network” to push for the two-state solution. No members of that Progressive Israel Network are Palestinian. Though more than 20 percent of Israel is non-Jewish.
Certainly, Ayman Odeh is a lot easier to sell to American progressives than Benjamin Netanyahu. And even if Odeh turns out to have little effect on Israeli politics, he might be the land bridge that liberal Zionists require to start getting out of Zionism.
Not that the New York Times is giving him any oxygen. David Remnick wrote an excellent profile of Odeh in The New Yorker way back in January 2016. But the Times still can’t seem to find Odeh’s phone number to schedule an interview with him.