The “Arab sector,” as it is called in Israeli jargon, has returned to the headlines, and in a big way. This did not occur because of Azmi Bishara’s provocative statements, or because of Hanin Zoabi’s participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla, events which long ago stopped setting the tone. In fact, Bibi Netanyahu is the one who revived it. In the heart of the northern town of Umm al-Fahm, Netanyahu was photographed alongside the millionth person to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab Jabarin. This is how Bibi put an end to the mutual boycott between Jews and Arabs, which has lasted since the bloody confrontations of October 2000. In the background are the upcoming elections and the conclusion stemming from the three previous ones: anti-Arab incitement only serves the Arab parties and keeps Bibi from receiving the 61 mandates that he needs to escape imprisonment.
Haaretz‘s January 6th editorial praises Netanyahu for “knocking down the wall” between Jews and Arabs, but the one who initiated the move was Knesset Member (MK) Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Islamic Movement. Netanyahu’s moves are coordinated with Abbas. The slogan “Neither Right nor Left” corresponds to that of the Islamists, “Neither Right nor Left, Islam is the solution.” This is the slogan that guides Mansour Abbas, and from here comes his willingness to cooperate with Netanyahu, who has adapted the principle thus: Neither Right nor Left, Netanyahu is the solution. Mansour Abbas knows that the voters of the Joint Arab List are disappointed, because despite its historic achievement of 15 Knesset mandates, these yielded no tangible result. Bibi was not overthrown, nor did the 15 mandates bring about a single real achievement for the Arabs.
Mansour Abbas’ demands in return for supporting Netanyahu are straightforward: a government plan to eradicate violence in Arab society, on which Netanyahu is already working; a solution to the issue of building without permits in the Negev; and the employment of Arab academics in the public service, including senior positions. These demands are not excessive. They are much more modest than those of the Ultraorthodox and settlers, and Netanyahu has no problem complying. Moreover, as early as 2015, his government approved Resolution 922, a five-year economic development plan for Arab society, costing NIS 10 billion. At the time many Arab representatives and NGOs jumped on the bandwagon, which was supposed to change the face of Arab society. Despite the miraculous decision, in October 2020 the government had to extend the plan because the funds had gone unused. Again the Arab MKs rejoiced, although they had no reason to. The fact that these funds had gone unused stems from the failures of Arab local government.
It turns out that the problem is not limited to low budgets, as Arab representatives have argued for years, but rather to the dysfunctionality of local Arab authorities. They were unable to implement the plan. One main reason is the clan structure of Arab society, a source of corruption and managerial laxity. Part of the budget gets into the hands of local council heads, who use it to employ their kinsfolk and cronies, not necessarily people fit for the job. Tenders are stitched up, and there is no transparency in decision-making. Most of the remaining unused funds are designated for specific expenses. The clan leaders have no interest in them, because they would entail transparency and close government supervision.
The Islamic Movement is working to strengthen the conservative clan structure that has become the source of its power. On the one hand, it demands budgets from Netanyahu to eradicate violence, and on the other, it strengthens the traditional structure, which fosters oppression of women, non-integration into work and community, cultural censorship, and religious coercion. From here the path is short to intolerance, hatred towards the other, and violence both in and outside the family.
This is where MK Mtanes Shihadeh from the National Democratic Alliance (one of the four parties that compose the Joint List) enters our story. Shihadeh of course strongly opposes Mansour Abbas, as well as any support for Netanyahu or a Zionist list. According to a news item published by The Marker (Jan. 6, 2021), MK Shihadeh is not satisfied with budgets, “and is looking for a core solution.” The penny appears to have dropped, and he understands that the flow of billions to the heads of Arab councils will not change the situation. Accordingly, he states: “Economic indicators over the past decade show that growth in the Israeli economy as a whole has trickled down to the Arab community, but gaps between the Arab and Jewish sectors remain. Decision 922 may have helped the local authorities, but it did not bring about a change at the level of the individual.”
How does MK Shihadeh explain the miraculous phenomenon that while local authorities benefit, the people in their areas do not? Shihadeh seems fearful of telling the truth, namely, that the funds encourage corruption, especially the employment of relatives, with the result that society is damaged while the individual sees no results. In the core solution for which Shihadeh is searching, he lists four levels: upgrade agriculture, develop tourism, improve technological studies and invest in research and development. The direction is right, but the question is how to implement this.
Mansour Abbas has found his way to Bibi’s heart, but for whom does MK Shihadeh pine? In other words, what political force does Shihadeh rely on? For he opposes cooperation between Jews and Arabs, holding that it would undermine the “purity of Palestinian identity.” Shihadeh lies twice to himself, once when he doesn’t call the thing by its name and is unwilling to criticize Arab society with its clan structure, and a second time when he refrains from clearly saying, contrary to his separatist public agenda, that he actually supports the integration of Arab society into Israel’s economy.
The truth is that Arab society has already been integrated into many areas of the Israeli economy; Netanyahu has little choice but to acknowledge this fact and benefit from it. The problem is that the integration does not change the fact that the gaps between Jewish and Arab societies are maintained, while the Arab clan structure increases them. The real question is not how Arab society will close the gaps, but how Israeli society as a whole will change its face.
Encouraging tourism, agriculture and technological education is not a purely “Arab” problem, but a question facing Israeli society as a whole. Social disparities, the rule of monopolies, privatization, the starvation of the public sector (including education and health) are not “Arab” or “Jewish” questions, but problems faced by all Israeli society. A sectoral view does not promote Arabs but excludes them from the real struggle, which concerns the whole. Cooperation between Jews and Arabs is essential for a society that will benefit all.
The economic plan of the Daam Party is based on Joe Biden’s American model, the Green New Deal, meaning development of green energy-based economics, building transportation and technology infrastructures, and strengthening the public sector while distributing wealth more equitably. Of course in Israel this change cannot be detached from the question of questions, the ongoing Occupation, just as in the United States the desired change cannot be detached from the question of race. Jewish-Arab cooperation can only be realized on a basis that is international, non-Zionist and non-Palestinian-nationalist. It must be grounded in a universal principle, aimed at saving the planet on the one hand, and building an egalitarian, democratic regime on the other, a regime that unites Israelis and Palestinians on the basis of one economy, one state, and one constitution.
As long as sectoral politics and opportunistic collaborations continue between the “Center-Left” and the Joint List, or between the Right and the Islamic movement, Arab society will lag behind and the gaps will only deepen, while Israeli society will continue to be torn between liberals and conservatives. Arabs must eliminate the clan regime to enter the 21st century. Israelis must undergo an ideological and social revolution to emerge from the bipolar situation in which they seek to maintain democracy in the shadow of apartheid. This is a tremendous task, and only principled cooperation between Jews and Arabs will accomplish it.