The Jerusalem Post
2021 – The year of change
Close your eyes for just a minute and try to picture the American Democratic Party without its Afro-American and Hispanic politicians and voters. It is hard to imagine, isn’t it?
Now try to imagine Israel’s center-left camp without its Arab politicians and voters, who constitute about 20% of the nation’s population. You don’t even have to close your eyes, since this has been the sad reality over the 73 years of Israel’s existence. Up until this week.
Naturally, this outrageous situation is often rationalized with infinite excuses, the most prominent of which is the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, and the fact that the Arab citizens of Israel are a part of the Palestinian people. This complexity, among other reasons, furthered the delegitimization within Israel of the Arab political parties, and, correspondingly, forming a government with their support was considered inconceivable.
Yet something profound changed in Israel this past year. That is the change that brought about the first-ever governing coalition in Israel with one of its key members being an Islamic Arab party, alongside parties from the Jewish Center-Left and, even more surprisingly, together with a few right-wing parties.
So, what happened this year? First, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Suddenly, millions of Jews in Israel realized that a substantial part of the medical teams – doctors, nurses, pharmacists and lab workers – were Arab citizens who have lived here for generations.
The gratitude among all Israelis for their professional devoted care must have done its part. Moreover, the image of the Arab man, who in the depths of the Jewish collective subconscious in Israel is often portrayed as a murderous terrorist, was revealed as their actual savior. The closing of the borders also made clear to both Jews and Arabs, as one, that we were all in this together, in the same boat, partners in fate.
But the road to political change was no bed of roses, as in Ramadan (April-May) a violent escalation erupted between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
It began with several provocations from the far Right in Jerusalem, and harsh and excessively forceful conduct on the part of the Israeli police. This culminated in videos showing Israeli police tossing stun grenades into al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (the second-most important mosque in Islam) on Laylat al-Qadr, which is the holiest day of the holiest month in Islam.
In response, Hamas, sensing a political opening, began firing rockets from Gaza to Jerusalem, proclaiming its intent to “protect al-Aqsa.” And that was only the beginning.
The escalation caused by the
events in Jerusalem led to the realization of the ultimate Jewish-Israeli nightmare. While Hamas fired 4,000 indiscriminately aimed rockets at Israeli cities, the Arab citizens of Israel began taking to the streets in protest of the attack on al-Aqsa, and of many other injustices. On the fringes of the protests, violent rioters began setting fire to property and harming Jews in the mixed cities and in various parts of the country. At the same time, Jewish far-right groups responded with severe violence against Arab citizens, and it seemed that all over the country the streets were flooded with violence and that the relations between the two groups had reached an unprecedented low.
All this occurred in the midst of attempts to form a unity government that would lead to the replacement of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after 12 years in power brought his administration to employ extreme measures. The prime minister’s many spokesmen worked tirelessly and diligently to dismantle any relationship between Jews and Arabs, delicate relationships that were painstakingly and gradually established over many years.
HOWEVER, WHEN the smoke dissipated, it was revealed to everyone’s surprise that the political damage was more negligible than anticipated.
Furthermore – with the cessation of the fighting, the country began to be filled with hundreds of demonstrations, campaigns and initiatives by Jews and Arabs
that called for an end to the violence and emphasized the importance of a shared life. It seemed that the ties between Jews and Arabs in Israel were tangible and more profound beyond all speculation. Consequently, we were amazed at commercial companies that surprisingly took a public stand launching campaigns to support the Jewish-Arab commonality of day-to-day life.
Cellcom, the largest cellular company in Israel, called on all its employees to go on an hourlong identification strike with its Arab employees; while Harel, one of the largest insurance companies in Israel, posted huge billboards saying: “The Best Insurance Against Violence Is a Shared Life.”
A survey we conducted, at the height of the riots showed that close to 90% of the population, Jews and Arabs alike, strongly oppose the violence perpetrated against the other, and that a majority of both publics believe in the possibility of living together in peace.
These riots, which many in Israel believe were deliberately set off to serve political purposes of thwarting a Jewish-Arab coalition, actually did the opposite, as they proved that we, Jews and Arabs, together and separately, can overcome our most dreaded nightmares and not lose our mutual trust, hope and desire to live together. And most importantly, when the flames subsided, the leaders of the Jewish and Arab parties, left and right, entered the negotiating room and led to the establishment of the first Israeli
coalition ever that includes an Arab political party. From now on, we are not only partners in fate, but also partners in government.
This is a reality that could not have been imagined a year ago, when the attempts to replace Netanyahu failed for the third time in the space of a year due to the refusal of various elements to form a government that relies on Arab votes. This is a tectonic shift at the heart of the 140-year-old conflict between Jews and Arabs. The fact that the Arabs occupy a place at the cabinet table; that their votes are not only needed but also essential; and the recognition that Netanyahu and his dwindling regime could be stopped only thanks to a Jewish-Arab political cooperation, are ideas that are permeating the Israeli collective consciousness.
Where do we go from here? The potential inherent in combining forces between the Jewish center-left parties and the full electoral power of Arab citizens could mean that the next government will not be a unity government that extends deep into the Right, but, rather, a true center-left government; a government that will not only address discrimination, exclusion and barriers in Jewish-Arab relations in Israel, but will also finally break the fixations in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that we will most definitely call – change.