“Right-wing rule is in danger. Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations,” Mr. Netanyahu said in the video. “The left-wing nonprofit organizations are bringing them in buses.”
By frantically shouting ‘the Arabs are coming, the Arabs are coming!!!!1!’ Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi) drastically boosted his last-minute turnout in the latest Israeli elections, transforming what had been a close race into a comfortable win for his Likud Party.
But the big news is not that an Arab-hating racist won an election in an apartheid state, it’s that a Palestinian socialist-led progressive bloc known as the United Arab List came in third in the polls. This big news is being ignored by some socialist commentators as well as prominent anti-Israel activists. For example, Ali Abunimah, editor of the Electronic Intifada website, is “relieved” that one of the worst enemies of Palestinian freedom and the butcher of Gaza continues to be Israel’s prime minister.
Historically, Palestinian citizens of Israel (euphemestically labelled ‘Arab Israelis’ to disguise their Palestinian identity) have been marginal in Israeli politics in part because their voters’ loyalties have been more or less equally divided between Islamists, nationalists, and leftists, none of whom could get much more than 1%-2% of the vote. But this time around, Ayman Oudeh of the Palestinian-Israeli socialist Hadash Party managed to unite the Arab political parties under a single, progressive banner — the United Arab List — and together they came in third place. For the first time in Israeli history, a Palestinian socialist debated the other (Zionist) party candidates on Israeli television. For the first time in Israeli history, anti/non-Zionist forces form a politically significant bloc within Israel’s legislature, the Knesset. For the first time in Israeli history, ‘the Arabs’ as a politically active, mobilized, and united force significantly affected the outcome of an Israeli election with near-record turnout — and under socialist leadership, no less! Had Likud and its Zionist Union rival split their shares of the vote in a more equitable fashion, the United Arab List could have played the role as kingmaker in the Knesset.
Oudeh’s approach to politics might best be characterized as radical pragmatism — constantly challenging and expanding the boundaries of the status quo further and further while avoiding ‘left’ hyper-radicalism and ‘right’ opportunism. In the Israeli context, an example of the first of these errors would be boycotting the country’s political process since Israel is illegitimate (founded on stolen land, Palestinian disposession); an example of the second error would be evading issues of discrimination against Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or the ongoing Israeli occupation and colonization of the West Bank in a craven bid to gain Zionist votes. Instead of succumbing to either of these temptations, the United Arab List put forward the Hebrew-language election slogan — “My Answer to Racism” — to highlight and combat the intensifying anti-Arab racism in Israeli political discussion.
After the Knesset passed a law raising the minimum number of votes needed to secure seats in the legislature in a thinly-veiled attempt to exclude the small Arab parties, Oudeh helped unite them despite their ideological differences in a common front with a progressive program not aimed exclusively at Palestinian/Arab but at Israeli/Jewish voters as well:
- A demand for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of two states, including full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-Six Day War borders and realization of a Palestinian right of return.
- Recognition of Israel’s Arab population as a national minority with cultural, religious, and educational autonomy.
- The establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.
- Fighting poverty.
- Raising the minimum wage.
- Full equality for women in all areas of life.
Oudeh even sought to include the ultra-Jewish orthodox Shas party in the United Arab List, their historic alignment with the Zionist right notwithstanding. Why? Because he sought to link up with and influence their base — poor, Mizrahi Jews whose interests as poor people are more in line with poor Palestinians than with their usual allies, the Zionist parties responsible for privatization and budget cuts.
Another example of Oudeh’s radical pragmatism is this United Arab List ad that went viral among Hebrew-speakers.
The video shows a typical Tel Aviv family sitting down for their Shabbat meal, with the parents expressing horror when their 18 year-old daughter announces that she plans to vote for the Joint List. “The ARABS?!” they chorus. At that point strangers start bursting into their home: first someone representing the Likud who hands the father a copy of the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom (“it’s free”) and asks if the family had heard about the danger posed by Iran. Then a robotic couple representing the Zionist Union comes in, parroting a platform that amounts to “we have no plan, but don’t vote for him because he’s a bad man.” Then a Yair Lapid type comes in like a rock star, shouting, “Hello, Middle Class! Nu, where’s the money? Here, take a mobile phone!” And finally a Naftali Bennett representative comes in, shouting “Dudes! Gut shabbes!” He sits on the table and helps himself to the family’s meal.
The exasperated father orders them all out of his home, at which point Oudeh walks in and gently asks, “Hey, what’s all the noise about?” The other party reps scuttle out of the apartment, muttering about Arabs, while the father and mother thank their “neighbor.” No problem, answers Oudeh. We all live in the same building together and we all want the same thing: “Equal rights, peace and quiet.” In response, the father smiles and says, “Hey, you should run for Knesset!”
But isn’t the United Arab List laden with internal contradictions? Socialist Bill Crane noted:
…this united front is deeply contradictory. Many who follow Palestinian events were wondering on the eve of the elections how a party whose candidates included left-wing feminists from Hadash and practicing polygamists from the Islamic Movement could have much of a future.
As Palestinian journalist Linah Alsaafin has pointed out, this contradiction is just one of the question marks hovering over the United Arab List. Any Palestine solidarity activist must question party leader Ayman Odeh, who late in the election cycle deliberately equivocated over whether the United Arab List would enter a government with the Zionist Union and vowed to keep out Netanyahu when Herzog and Livni were the only other realistic options. In any case, his optimism (or opportunism) seems misplaced when there has never been an Arab party in government, and there never will be as long as Israel remains a Jewish state.
Furthermore, the fundamental vision of the UAL leaders itself has to be questioned. Odeh has supported the two-state solution…
That socialists could create a viable political alliance of feminists, nationalists, and Islamists in a struggle for democratic rights is no more ‘contradictory’ than SYRIZA’s decision to ally with the anti-austerity Independent Greeks in their common struggle against their common enemy, the Troika. Interests are what drive political alliances, not ideological compatibility. Crane criticizes Odeh for advocating a two-state solution but does not acknowledge that 77% of the Palestinians oppose abandoning the two-state strategy, an overwhelming majority that cannot be ignored or flouted in an electoral contest.
In any case, supporters of the Palestinian struggle for freedom have no reason to celebrate Bibi’s win. Abunimah is right that Zionist Union would have re-ignited the fruitless and endless process of negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority but wrong for thinking the struggle will become remotely easier with Bibi in power armed with a new, openly racist popular mandate. Similarly, Jeff Harper commenting at Mondoweiss, seems to relish the coming collapse of the Palestinian Authority under Bibi will “usher in the one-state option,” the “genuine and just solution,” the transformation of the existing Israeli state from being a Jewish state “into a democratic state of equal rights for all of its citizens.” Harper is right that the two-state solution is increasingly untenable and may for all intents and purposes be dead thanks to Bibi’s intransigence but wrong to think that a bi-national single state with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews is the emerging and feasible alternative given that Zionist parties that oppose that vision just won over 100 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
The balance of power between pro- and anti-Zionist (or pro and anti-Palestinian) forces in the world is as unfavorable as it has ever been. The strength of the boycott, divest, and sanction Israel movement and the greater international recognition and support for Palestinian statehood is not growing fast enough either quantitatively or qualitatively to offset the continued settlement of Jerusalem and the West Bank, the continued strangulation of Gaza via blockade, and the interminable, deepening crises and rampant corruption that has beset the Palestinian national liberation movement since Oslo. Simply put, the pace of colonization continues to outpace the speed of solidarity.
So if there is anything about the Israeli elections worth celebrating, it’s Ayman Oudeh, not Benjamin Netanyahu.