Israel likes to tout that fact that it’s the only true democracy in the region. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a more often bandied slogan than that “Nowhere in the Middle East do Arabs have more rights than in Israel; they even serve in parliament.”
“There’s Arab members of Knesset. And that’s the way it should be,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said just last week in an interview with CNN. “I don’t recall that in Saudi Arabia, there’s any Jewish members of parliament. I know that all across the region, there’s apartheid against other religions. Not in Israel.”
But all that could change soon — theoretically, at least.
On Tuesday, the Knesset approved a dramatic electoral reform, which, among other things, increased the electoral threshold from 2 to 3.25 percent, posing an existential threat to parliament’s three Arab parties, which barely made it into the current Knesset.
Coalition members congratulated themselves for having passed the so-called Governance Bill, hoping it would lead to more stable future governments (contrary to what many of the bill’s opponents are claiming, the parties advocating for it did not intend to push the Arabs out of the Knesset, even if a few MKs do harbor such desires). Whether that goal will actually be achieved remains to be seen.
But, at least as far as Israel’s pluralistic credentials go, the more apropos question is whether the three Arab parties in the current Knesset will unite to guarantee that Israel’s largest minority — about 20 percent of the country’s citizens are Arabs — maintains its parliamentary representation.
If those parties do not unite and, running individually, fail to enter the 20th Knesset, Israel will lose one of its most valuable talking points: that in the Jewish state Arabs are represented in parliament. And a Knesset without a single Arab party — because of a law passed by a right-wing government, no less – will generate a lot bad press and could put a serious dent in Israel’s PR efforts.
The heads of the two exclusively Arab parties — the Arab-nationalist Balad and the Islamist Ra’am-Ta’al parties – have already indicated that they will merge to try to avoid being wiped out in the next election, currently scheduled for 2017. But that understanding doesn’t extend to the Arab-Jewish communist Hadash party, whose ideology could prevent it from signing on to such a merger.
But if they so chose, the Arab MKs could inflict a world of damage to the bill’s proponents, and indeed to every defender of Israel as a pluralistic, open-minded society. All that Ra’am-Ta’al, Balad and Hadash would have to do to is to enter the next campaign as three independent parties, and hope for the worst.
During last year’s elections, Ra’am Tal actually received 3.65% of the popular vote; if they were to repeat that result in 2017, they would make the cut, but by the skin of their teeth. Judging by the 2012 figures, Balad and Hadash, however, would be out for sure. If none of the three parties passes the new 3.25% threshold, they could easily exploit the election result to badmouth Israel, declaring that after decades during which Israel “tolerated” Arab parties as a fig leaf for democracy, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and co. have finally succeeded in creating an Arab-free Knesset.
Still, for the time being that option appears to be off the table.
By not uniting, “we would be rewarding Liberman and the others,” MK Masud Ganaim of Ra’am-Ta’al told The Times of Israel this week. “They want a Knesset with no Arabs, so why should I give them that? No way. I’m part of Arab society in Israel and I want to be represented.”
Of course Tuesday’s historic vote in the Knesset, which passed 67-0 due to the opposition’s boycott of the vote, does not change the fact that Arabs enjoy, and will continue to enjoy, full civil rights in Israel. But with Israelis worried about losing the public relations war, battling apartheid allegations and scrambling to fend off a growing boycott movement, a Knesset without Arab parties would deal a devastating blow to the country’s standing in the world.
“There is nothing undemocratic, per se, in having a 3.25% threshold, as compared to the previous 2%. In fact, most parliamentary democracies have thresholds higher than 3%,” said former MK Einat Wilf, who published a book last year arguing against electoral reform. No matter what the Arab parties decide — a merger or a stubborn independent run that could see them ousted from the Knesset — this “minor change” in the law books “is likely to have profound effects on Arab-Jewish relations within Israeli politics and society,” she told The Times of Israel. “Only time will tell exactly what this vote’s impact will be.”
But no matter how it plays out, Balad leader Jamal Zahalke was probably right when he mused this week that Liberman might “be remembered as the unifier of Arabs.”
Elhanan Miller contributed to this report.