By David Benkof
Until March 17, the day of the Knesset election, followers of Israeli politics will hotly debate which party and prime minister should and will guide Israel’s next phase. But another election story, less discussed, may have just as far-reaching implications for the future of Israel’s democracy, identity and history.
Most polls suggest that the representation of Arab parties in the Knesset will grow from the current 11 seats to 13, although I believe the number will be even higher. But even if the apparent growth is modest, the change will matter.
The main structural difference in the 20th Knesset will be the merger of the Arab parties into one United Arab List. Previously, there were three Arab parties representing Islamists, secularists and communists, and each had three to four seats. A united party will likely be the third largest in the 120-seat Knesset and a force to be reckoned with.
Ironically, the likely Arab surge grows out of an attempt to exclude Arab parties from the coalition altogether. Under prodding by Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party, the Knesset raised the threshold required for a party to enter the Knesset from three to four seats.
Israel has raised the threshold periodically since the early days of the Knesset, when a party could hold even a single seat if it received enough votes. Advocates of raising the threshold often cite “making the Israeli system more like America’s,” which means they must not have been paying attention to Washington lately.
But the Arab parties may have the last laugh. Facing a series of corruption scandals, Lieberman’s party has fallen to five to six seats in the polls, which means it is in danger of falling below the threshold and out of Israeli political life altogether.
Israel’s newly united Arab party is campaigning at an unprecedented pace, which means the key is Arab turnout. In the 2013 election, 56 percent of eligible Arab voters participated (the equivalent Jewish number was 64 percent). But in municipal elections, Arab participation is massive, with turnout in various Arab towns reaching 80 percent to 90 percent and sometimes even higher.
So the question becomes whether Israeli Arabs can manage to get to the polls at rates closer to city elections than to previous Knesset elections. If they do, their representation in the Knesset would grow well beyond the projected 13 seats to 16 or 17 seats or more. A party of that size could be a kingmaker and decisive influence not only on issues that closely split the Jewish vote in the Knesset, but also on a host of other issues, including the anti-Arab “nation-state” bill that nearly passed in the last Knesset.
Would increased Arab participation in the Knesset be a disaster for Jewish Israelis? I don’t think so.
I’m a Zionist and Israeli citizen whose opinions are center-right (my Middle Eastern politics dovetail closely with those of Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper), yet I welcome more vigorous participation by Arabs in the Israeli political system. While I have written elsewhere (dailycaller.com/2014/12/31/un-security-council-vote-means-israel-cant-choose-democracy) that when forced to choose, Israel should opt for independence over democracy, right now Israel isn’t forced to choose. And if Israeli Jews wish to maintain their dominance in the Knesset, they can prioritize voter engagement and turnout just as any other group can.
The policy ramifications of an increased voice for Arabs in the Knesset could be profound. Israeli Arab leaders are likely to push for expedited negotiations to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel, of course. But economic changes that may appear mundane on the surface, such as increased resources for infrastructure, water and electric power in Arab areas, are the bread and butter of any government.
Budgeting is a zero-sum game, and upgraded economic conditions in Arab areas could be a game-changer in Israeli society in the long term.
For too long, it has been easy for Israeli Jews to ignore the fact that one-fifth of our fellow citizens are non-Jews with legal rights that are essentially equal. Ensuring that Arab voices receive commensurate consideration is not only a matter of justice; it could spur a Jewish renewal of passionate engagement in our own self-rule.
So supporters of Israel need to prepare for the influence of Israeli Arabs to swell later this month but should not be afraid of it. And ethnocentric nationalists like Lieberman who have tried to silence the voices of their antagonists should be careful what they wish for.
David Benkof is senior political analyst for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. He writes the Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle, which appears in the Atlanta Jewish Times. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof), or email him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.