A top Arab politician has called on the government to recognize Arab Israelis as a national minority, and to grant them autonomy over their educational affairs.
Mtanes Shihadeh, the number two candidate on Ra’am-Balad’s electoral slate, contended that if the government were to undertake such moves, it would significantly advance equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel. Ra’am-Balad is an alliance between an Islamist party (Ra’am) and a nationalist faction (Balad).
“We need the government to define us as a national minority and grant us our national rights, meaning our rights to self-rule over our cultural and educational issues,” Shihadeh, who is vying to enter the Knesset for the first time, told The Times of Israel in a recent telephone interview.
While Arab Israelis, who make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population, run their own municipalities and townships, the Education Ministry oversees the public education systems in their communities.
“We want to develop our own curricula and focus them on our people, its culture, its language and its economic development. We also want to appoint our own management in schools,” he said. “At the current moment, the Education Ministry has not allowed us to do that.”
The Education Ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Balad politician, who has vehemently opposed the quasi-constitutional nation-state law, which the Knesset passed in July 2018, said that “there are two peoples here and they both deserve national rights and the ability to run their own cultural and educational affairs.”
The law enshrined Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” recognized Jewish holidays and days of remembrance, declared Hebrew the state’s sole national language, and included no reference to the equality of all Israeli citizens, akin to the one made in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Balad has said it supports “a state with equal rights for all of its citizens.”
Asked whether he thought his vision for self-rule would undermine Jewish self-determination, he said: “Jews have these rights, but we do too and we need the government to recognize that.”
Shihadeh hails from Nazareth, but currently resides in Isfiya, a Druze-majority village near Haifa, with his wife and three children. He wrote his doctoral dissertation at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, on the impact of globalization on Jewish-Israeli voting patterns.
After completing his studies, he worked for some 15 years at Mada al-Carmel, a research institute in Haifa that focuses on Arab Israeli society and politics. The insittute was co-founded by Azmi Bishara, a former MK, wanted by Israeli authorities for allegedly spying for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Shihadeh has been an active member of Balad for the past two decades, and in 2016 became the party’s secretary-general.
The Knesset hopeful vowed that Ra’am-Balad would not recommend Blue and White’s Benny Gantz or anyone else to serve as prime minister.
“We want to end [Benjamin] Netanyahu’s rule, but Gantz doesn’t even acknowledge us. So how can we recommend him for prime minister?” he said. “We won’t be recommending anyone.”
In the days following the elections, every party that wins seats in the Knesset will inform President Reuven Rivlin who it recommends to serve as prime minister. Thereafter, Rivlin most likely will grant the person who receives the highest number of recommendations the opportunity to form a coalition.
The latest polls indicate that Netanyahu probably will receive a higher number of recommendations than Gantz. At least one official in Hadash-Ta’al, the other major Arab-majority list running for parliament, has said he would be open to recommending Gantz, but only if he agrees to a series of conditions including promising to abrogate the controversial and quasi-constitutional nation-state law.
Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, has suggested he will not engage the Arab-majority parties in his efforts to form a government.
“We are calling for a unity government,” Gantz said during a tour of a northern Israel in March, specifying he would like it to include members of the Likud party and anyone “who is sane and Zionist.”
Shihadeh also argued that Ra’am-Balad could advance the interests of Arab Israelis from outside the governing coalition.
“In the opposition under Netanyahu, who has constantly incited against us, we achieved [Resolution] 922,” he said. “We know it is not easy, but we want to improve the status of Palestinians here and we have proven that it can be done from the opposition.”
In 2015, the government passed the resolution, a five-year economic development plan for Arab communities for 2016-2020, which has been hailed as a landmark in government policy vis-a-vis Arab Israelis. As part of the plan, the government has set out a budget of NIS 650 million ($182 million) to boost non-formal education in Arab society. In addition, 922 intends to raise the number of community centers in Arab localities, from 32 to 54 by 2020.
No Arab-majority party has ever joined the governing coalition. However, a recent Brookings Institution survey found that 73 percent of Arab Israelis would support the Arab factions entering one, if the opportunity to do so arose.
During the interview, Shihadeh pushed back on criticism against Balad MK Hanin Zoabi, whom government officials and commentators have condemned over controversial statements she has made about Israel and the IDF.
In a 2014 interview with Israeli TV, Zoabi said both the Israel Defense Forces and the Islamic State group “are armies of murderers.”
Asked about this comment, the Shihadeh said: “Hanin is the victim of the Israeli establishment inciting against her. I don’t know whether she made this specific comment, but the army has carried out war crimes in the West Bank, which international organizations have documented.”
In January, Zoabi — who also said the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in 2014 (they were later found to have been killed by their Palestinian abductors) was not terrorism, and participated in a convoy of vessels, including the Mavi Marmara, in 2010 that sought to break Israel’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip — announced that she would not run for reelection to the Knesset. Other Balad politicians have also faced intense criticism, including Basel Ghattas, who smuggled phones to terror convicts in Israeli prisons.
Shihadeh added that Balad was not only making efforts to win over Arab voters, but Jewish ones as well.
“We want Jews who believe in our vision of equality and democracy for all citizens to vote for us. One of our candidates is Jewish and we have been holding meetings with potential Jewish voters,” he said, referring to Orly Noy, Ra’am-Balad’s number six candidate, a political activist and frequent contributor to the left-wing +972 Magazine.
Balad has held three events in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Jaffa in Hebrew in the last two weeks, targeting Jewish voters. However, at least some of Ra’am-Balad’s Arabic-language commercials that aired on Israeli television did not feature Hebrew subtitles.
Shihadeh also contended that Ra’am-Balad, if it passes the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset, would put a special focus on tackling violence in Arab Israeli villages and towns, where frequent shootings have occurred.
“This is a very important issue. Both the establishment and our community need to work on it,” he said. “There are ways to deal with violence; we need economic and cultural development; we need the police collect the weapons in our towns and crack down on crime; and we need a clear political will to address it.”