Arab citizens best described their status in the years following the establishment of the state of Israel as “orphans laid out on the table of villains”. Although the founders and leaders of the state promised full equality, in practice the Arab populations endured a severe military regime, restricting their mobility and prioritising land confiscation. Those who had been evicted from their villages were denied the right to return to their homes.
Despite these dreadful conditions, they never submitted to passivity and submissiveness, or extremism. Instead, they embarked on a courageous civil struggle, asserting their right to stay on their land, and to oppose the discriminatory policies that encompassed all fields of their life. It would be correct to say that the Arab citizens of Israel are among the pioneers of civil resistance in the world.
There was optimism in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, decided not only to rely on the political support of parties mainly supported by Arabs, but also to consider these votes as legitimate in crucial political matters: recognising the PLO, and promoting withdrawal from Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Rabin was assassinated by a rightwing political activist: his punishment for attempting peace with the Palestinians, but also because he dared to legitimise the votes of Arab Knesset representatives to settle crucial issues.
Since then rightwing forces have continued to undermine the legitimacy of the Arab population in Israel at parliamentary level, as rightwing parties know that Arab voters can play a powerful role in bringing about peace, democracy, social justice and equality. The Israeli minister for foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, calls Arab citizens who oppose the government’s policies a “fifth column”. In the previous term, Lieberman led the move to raise the electoral threshold for the Knesset elections, a step that had one purpose: to prevent small parties and lists, whose voters are mainly Arabs, from making it to the Knesset.
Perhaps the right envisaged that unification of all Arab parties into one list – to pass the required 3.25% threshold – would create two distinct camps, Arab and Jewish, resulting in an increased animosity, and nationalist extremism. But the Arabs and their democratic Jewish allies did not fall into that trap. Instead they formed the Joint Arab-Jewish List: the alliance that will contest tomorrow’s election. We are the antithesis of the main larger blocs, namely the rightwing nationalist camp – led by Likud – on the one hand, and the centrist Zionist camp, including Labour, on the other. Our Joint List calls for the unification of all the weak and oppressed populations, regardless of race, religion or sex.
It is the answer to the policies of discrimination against Arabs, whose poverty rates are among the highest in the country. While tens of thousands in the south are under daily threat of being deported from their localities, the List declares that Arab citizens demand full equality, as equal partners not subordinates. It’s win-win, as any economic boom within the Arab community will bring economic prosperity to the whole of Israeli society.
As head of the Joint List, I have devised a 10-year plan to close the disparities separating Arab and Jewish populations. We intend to march on Jerusalem – echoing the civil rights march on Washington led by Martin Luther King more than 50 years ago – to raise awareness of our 10-year plan and demand justice and democracy.
We say that there can be no real and substantial democracy as long as the 1967 occupation of Palestinian territories continues. And we believe that only by respecting the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and independence can Israeli society be freed from this ethical, economic and social burden.
Our representatives will stand firm against the pressure of tycoons, and against the rising cost of basic necessities, and we will work to guarantee appropriate housing for all. Above all, we’ll demand democracy and equality for the Arab population. We will be an alternative camp, the democratic camp – where Arabs and Jews are equal partners, not enemies
Ayman Odeh is the leader of Joint List, the united front of Israel’s Arab parties.