Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Arab Parties In Israel Under Pressure

In a rambunctious Knesset hearing today, the Central Election Committee voted against allowing MK Hanein Zoabi to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  Lahav Harkov of the Jerusalem Post who live-tweeted the hearing, reports that Zoabi's party, Balad, will still be permitted to participate.

MK Zoabi famously drew criticism after her participation in the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.  Her choice led to a rowdy Knesset session during which the MKs voted to remove Zoabi's diplomatic passport, entitlement to financial assistance, and the right to visit countries with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations.  Today's hearing was partially centered on Zoabi, but the discussion of Balad ultimately put on the table the role of Israel's Arab political parties more broadly.

The hearing reflects the deep political mistrust which exists in Israeli society towards Arab political parties, including Balad, Raam-Taal, the United Arab List, and the Arab Democratic Party.  In his remarks to the committee today, Likud MK Danny Danon said that it is important to have Arab parties in the Knesset, but not ones which take advantage of democracy and use government funds to harm the country.  He then accused Balad of helping Hizbullah during the 2006 war in Lebanon, a reference to former Balad MK Amzi Bishara.  At the same time, Arab parties are often cited as exemplary of the extent of Israel's openness and democratic practices.  These dual views on Arab parties create a tension common in many ethnically-divided democracies, wherein many parliament members support the party's existence in principle but are wary of its politics in practice. 

Arab parties in Israel are also under pressure because Arab youth are less engaged with them than in years past.  As of late, these parties have come into competition with the Islamic movement, which often takes a more youth populist line over social issues such as national service as well as Israel's relationship with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  These positions resonate more with youth than those of Arab parties like Balad which historically allies with the communist Hadash party.  

To remain relevant political actors, Arab political parties in Israel face the task of aligning more closely with Arab youth while also building trust between themselves mainstream Knesset parties other than Meretz on the far-left.  This balancing act is very difficult, and leaves Arab youth in Israel in a bind as well.  Increasingly, these youth face the choice of either turning to the Islamic movement, or becoming disenfranchised from politics completely.

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