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Jabareen: Arab representation in Israel politics is crucial for the Palestinian struggle

As the Israeli elections on 9 April approach, MEMO interviews Arab MKs, current and former, as to their experiences of working within the Israeli political system, and their hopes for the future.

March 7, 2019 at 8:32 am

On the final day for Israeli political parties to list their electoral slate, Arab parties, still reeling from the decision of Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al) head Ahmad Tibi to split from the Joint List, announced another surprise move. Ta’al had now joined Ayman Odeh’s party Al-Jabha (Hadash), with the Joint List now split into two main factions: a Ta’al-Al-Jabha partnership opposite a National Democratic Union (Balad) and United Arab List (Ra’am) coalition.

For Al-Jabha MK Yousef Jabareen, this decision is in the best interests of the Arab citizens of Israel: “The most important thing now that we have two lists is to keep constructive and open and positive atmosphere of competition within the Arab community,” he argues. “The fact that we are in two lists shouldn’t prohibit continued cooperation and joint endeavours.”

The Joint List, the first alliance between Arab dominated parties in Israel, was formed in the run up to the 2015 elections, and was estimated to have received at least 82 per cent of the vote from Palestinians in Israel, forming the third largest faction in the Knesset.

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“We tried our best in the past few weeks to keep this list,” Jabareen says. “However some disputes about the power of each party didn’t allow us to reach a full compromise, but I’m happy that we were able to unite in two lists.”

Despite the split, he is optimistic that both parties will hold onto their current seats in the upcoming polls, and even sees the possibility of gaining more: “I’m hopeful that we could even do better, and instead of the 13 seats we have, we could increase them to 15 or 16.”

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This success however, depends on the engagement of Arab voters. The turnout amongst Palestinian citizens of Israel has been noted as less than the broader Israeli public, contradictory to the usual behaviour of minority groups seeking to increase their standing in society.

I think in Israel, feelings of despair and maybe the distrust of the Israeli political system have caused too many Arab citizens to stay away from participating in the election

Jabreen says. “I definitely understand these positions, but I believe that we, as a national indigenous community who face discrimination, alienation and systematic exclusion from the public sphere of our homeland, we don’t have the luxury of giving up and not being represented in these influential positions.”

The Arab MK also believes representation in the Israeli political sphere can rally support from the international community: “Our work in the Knesset is not limited to parliamentarian work; sometimes even the more important work by us is being done outside the parliament, whether it’s in the field by strengthening our community … or by representing the cause and values of our community in the international arena.”

With the polls just a month away, Al-Jabha is hoping to secure votes by promoting their agenda for the socio-economic empowerment of Arab citizens in Israel, as well as combating the exclusion and discrimination they face in society.

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“We believe that this political wing in the Knesset could also affect the political map in Israel. We have a political interest in blocking the expansion of right wing parties in Israel, led by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Jabareen continues, arguing that it’s conceivable a right-wing majority could be avoided in parliament.

“It’s a possibility now that there is some unity in the centre of the political map in Israel,” he says, alluding to the merger between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White party, currently slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls. “I’m not saying that the alternative government would be a real alternative that would adopt our positions, but I believe that weakening the dangerous right-wing parties should be the target of everybody who has some hope to advance the peace process.”

It’s easier to negotiate with politicians from a central party, than the right, Jabareen argues.

Yet despite Netanyahu now facing some competition, Israeli political discourse continues to be dominated by the right-wing, helped in part, according to Jabareen, by the inability of the opposition to provide a viable alternative aimed at promoting peace with the Palestinians.

“The Israeli street actually doesn’t hear an alternative voice,” the Knesset member stresses. “Unfortunately, the current alternative presented by Gantz and Lapid, the new unity alliance in the centre, so far they also have not presented a real alternative to Netanyahu. However maybe the Israeli public will give them a chance and that might change the political atmosphere.”

He slams Netanyahu as adding “fuel to the fire”, citing a recent speech in which the prime minister warned Jewish parties running against him, stating that they would be dependent on Arab parties who work to abolish the state of Israel.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Yoav Lemmer/Getty Images]

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu [Yoav Lemmer/Getty Images]

“This is clear incitement against Arab parties, Arab leaders and the Arab community in Israel, by denying the basic right of political participation. This is dangerous incitement in general, but definitely dangerous when it comes from the prime minister himself.”

As a member of Israel’s parliament, Jabareen witnessed first-hand last year the approval of the country’s controversial Nation-State Law, which he describes as a summary of “the extreme right-wing political agenda of the Netanyahu government”.

“It deepened our inferior legal status,” he says, citing how the law denies the right of Palestinians to have a state alongside Israel and stipulates that a united Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. “The right for self-determination is an exclusive right for Jews.”

Jabareen also addresses the role of the US in Israeli politics; since the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, the relationship between the Washington and Tel Aviv has been hailed as by both sides as closer than ever. The US president has cut funding to the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, and caused weeks of demonstrations around the world after recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner is also a close family friend of Benjamin Netanyahu.

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“We see clearly a kind of coalition that works on the ground behind the Israeli right-wing led by Netanyahu and the Trump administration,” Jabareen says. “I believe that Trump gave them the green light to go ahead with the Nation-State Law. In fact the proposal had been presented since 2011; it’s the change in the American administration that enabled the Netanyahu government to go ahead with this legislation last year.”

Jabareen reiterates that the bill enshrines apartheid into law: “It’s ironic that the same state that came to the conclusion decades ago that racial segregation is morally and legally wrong, is basically approving similar segregation systems here in Israel, as if they didn’t learn anything from history.”

Whilst the upcoming elections provide an opportunity for Arab parties to raise the profile of the Palestinian cause, Jabareen says that more needs to be done by foreign governments to counter America’s biased influence.

“Unless there is an international intervention that will force Israel to adhere to the international consensus of a two-state solution, I am afraid that the situation will deteriorate into a total and ongoing conflict,” he concludes. “It’s a wakeup call for the international community before it’s too late.”