Editor’s Note: Anthony David is an historian, teacher and author of nine books, most recently Friendly Fire: How Israel Became Its Own Worst Enemy and Its Hope for the Future, which he wrote with Ami Ayalon, the former director of Israel’s Shin Bet. The views expressed here are the author’s own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The new Israeli government sworn into power on Sunday is a motley coalition of political parties with no common ideology beyond ousting Benjamin Netanyahu and ending his 12-year rule. Skeptics rightly wonder how a government could survive that includes both an avid supporter of West Bank settlers like the new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Mansour Abbas, a man Bennett once labeled a “supporter of terrorism” and now calls “a decent man.”
But 47-year-old Abbas, a dentist and leader of the United Arab List (Ra’am), a small Islamist party, was the kingmaker whose support allowed the new government to form and gain a majority in the Knesset. An even bigger irony of these strange bedfellows is that Ra’am – the first Arab party included in a governing coalition – might very well make Bennett’s government a transformational one. If Abbas’ gamble pans out – among other guarantees, the $16 billion he secured for investment in the Arab sector during the coalition agreements will certainly help – he could be the first of many Arab power brokers in a drastically more democratic Jewish state.
Living in Israel for 20 years as a graduate student and academic between 1995 and 2015, I experienced several election cycles and each time I was exhilarated by the dynamism of Israel’s democracy – for Jewish Israelis. Among Arab friends, all graduates of Israeli universities, I sensed a festering frustration, as if nothing would ever change, no matter who they voted for or what their party’s platform said. Higher levels of unemployment than Jewish Israelis, a soaring crime rate in Israeli Arab towns, a housing crunch and discriminatory government spending in vital areas like education seemed as unchangeable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the West Bank and Gaza. Many of my friends stopped voting, and others left the country altogether.
Battling inequality is difficult in all democracies; in Israel it can seem impossible because Jewish parties have refused to invite Arab parties to join their coalition governments. In Israel’s coalition system, small Ultra-Orthodox parties, by contrast, have repeatedly joined coalitions in order to secure government spending on education, housing, and welfare. The voter turnout among Ultra-Orthodox, unsurprisingly, is the highest in the country.
I got my first glimpse into how this unwritten code of governance perpetuates inequality when I wrote a book with Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. Ayalon, a retired admiral whose background is in the special forces and the Navy, was brought in to lead Shin Bet following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Ayalon’s brief was to fight a wave of Islamic terror plaguing Israeli cities, and to do so he had to make sure Arab citizens of Israel didn’t collaborate with terrorist organizations in the West Bank and Gaza. This meant infiltrating Arab parties and social organizations. It also required him to get to know Arab society and culture in order to understand their complex identities.
He recalls how during his meetings with Arab leaders, he was quick to realize how Israeli policies, not ideology, were pushing Arabs into the arms of Israel’s enemies. Before his murder, Rabin’s coalition didn’t include Arab parties, but he depended on votes by Arab members of the Knesset. Because of this, he treated Arabs as full citizens and dramatically increased spending in the Arab sector.
Once Netanyahu came to power in 1996, he turned off the spigot, and Arabs once again felt a pervasive, systemic discrimination robbing them of the hope of ever being accepted as equals. Their alienation imperiled not only Israeli democracy but also its security. Something had to change.
During cabinet meetings in 1996 and 1997, Ayalon warned then-Prime Minister Netanyahu of the danger of radicalization and pointed out that the government had yet even to discuss the sense of inequality Arabs felt. The prime minister nodded but did nothing, says Ayalon.
In 1996, in the months leading up to the 50th anniversary of a massacre that took place in the Arab village of Kafr Qasim, Ayalon proposed to Netanyahu that he begin the process of creating faith in Israeli democracy by attending the commemoration of the event in the village and apologizing for the Israeli police shooting that killed 48 villagers, including 23 children, for violating a military curfew. Netanyahu said he couldn’t apologize for the massacre, and, says Ayalon, moved on to the next item on the daily agenda.
Polling data reflects Israeli Arabs’ increasing disillusionment with the democracy that should have been helping them. Between 1996 and 2006, Arab participation in national elections dropped from 79% to 56%. They remained locked out of power and influence through the Netanyahu years; their belief in Israeli democracy has continued to erode. In the last election this year, only 45% of Arabs voted.
I no longer live in Israel, so I didn’t experience firsthand how pent-up frustration translated into an explosion of rioting and violence in mixed Arab-Jewish cities during the latest war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Successive Israeli governments had chosen a narrow, ethnic, definition of democracy – that only Jewish votes really count – over an inclusive democracy which would have brought Arab parties into the government, and the predictions Ayalon had made during his Shin Bet days were coming true.
The reason for locking Arabs out of power was also obvious: At about 21% of the population, Arabs who voted at the same rate as the Ultra-Orthodox – about 13% of the population – would be one of the most powerful voting blocs in the country and able to decide which Zionist party has power.
This is why Abbas is such a revolutionary. If the coalition survives the relentless attacks by Netanyahu – he has vowed to topple the “fraud government” – it will pour billions of dollars into the Arab sector. If past investments in the Ultra-Orthodox community are any guide, such a massive infusion of funds could result in rising employment rates, better education, housing and health care.
By the next election cycle, this means Arabs are likely to respond in precisely the same way the Ultra-Orthodox always have – by voting. The greater the voter turnout, the more members Knesset Arab parties will have; and the greater the representation in the Knesset, the more indispensable they will be for future coalition governments. What Abbas has started may turn Israeli Arabs into the permanent kingmakers of Israeli democracy.