Israel has already gone through three parliamentary elections in the past year, with a fourth possibly in the making. Most analysts have focused on whether, after three elections, Israel will be able to form a government that can secure a 61-seat majority in the Israeli Knesset. But is this really all that is at stake, especially if we look at these elections through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
While the successive election results have differed slightly, they all share common characteristics that point to a fundamental shift in the history of the conflict.
The first characteristic is that the elections are cementing what many analysts have already pointed out: We are in a one-state reality. The two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is supported by no more than a handful of Jewish-majority parties in Israel. Aside from the Arab parties, only seven Jewish members of the Knesset today explicitly support it! Long gone are the days when a majority of Israeli lawmakers expressed their strong support for an Israeli and a Palestinian state living side by side.
Whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his electoral rival Benny Gantz forms a government, or whether Israel has a national-unity government, will not have any direct bearing on the conflict. Neither candidate is serious about a viable two-state solution, with changing demographics making a one-state outcome—not necessarily a solution—a stark reality on the ground. Regardless of what any party to the conflict, or the international community, thinks, we are already in a post-Oslo paradigm. The question has ceased to be whether a two-state solution is possible or not, but what kind of a single state will emerge. Will it be an apartheid system, a democratic state, or something in between?
The second outcome of the three elections is the steady, and probably permanent, rise of an Arab bloc in the Knesset. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Arab citizens have gone from feeling besieged, marginalized, and uneasy about being part of the Israeli system, to slowly becoming empowered, aware of their own strength, and determined to fight discrimination and marginalization by standing up to the system through the rules it has laid down.
While Israel’s declaration of “independence” in 1948 assured Arabs full citizenship rights, most Israeli parties today are openly supportive of Israel as “a nation state for the Jewish people.” This leaves 20 percent of the country’s non-Jewish population wondering where they fit in this framework.
By insisting on a state only for the Jewish people, Israeli leaders adopted a racist attitude that backfired in the elections. The Arabs decided to fight back, put their differences aside, and run by uniting four Arab parties into one electoral list. Arabs also voted in record numbers, bringing their usually low voter turnout much closer to its Jewish equivalent, and even drawing support from some Jewish voters. The result is fifteen seats in the Knesset, making the Arab bloc the third largest in Israel’s parliament, and rendering the formation of any Israeli government more difficult without Arab support. Who would have guessed that the Arabs in Israel today would hold more than twice the number of seats in parliament than David Ben Gurion’s Labor Party does?
Times have changed. While a two-state solution has become almost impossible to implement, the struggle for Palestinian rights is itself undergoing an evolution. As a 2017 Carnegie report, “Revitalizing Palestinian Nationalism: Options Versus Realities,” indicated, “[T]here are signs of an evolution in the thinking of Palestinian activists and political theorists, including inside Israel, toward an approach that seeks legal protections...” The Palestinians appear to be shifting from defining the shape of any solution—through two states or one state—to securing their rights.
This process is taking place before our very eyes. The international community can tolerate an occupation so far as there is hope that the occupation will end and a Palestinian state will be established. Absent that hope, the international community cannot keep saying “no” to a Palestinian state and “no” to equal rights. That can only mean international endorsement of an apartheid system.
With the influence and credibility of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) steadily declining, and with the rise in power of the Arabs of Israel, the torch of the struggle for Palestinian rights seems to have been handed from the Palestinians under occupation to those inside Israel. The fight for equal rights and the stand against the religious and ethnic purity of the Israeli state is being more effectively carried by the likes of Israeli Arab politicians such as Ayman ‘Audeh, Ahmad Tibi, and Hiba Yazbek, than by any figure from the PNA.
While that fight is still a long way from achieving its goals, we are witnessing a clear transformation in that struggle, which will probably bring better results than previous approaches in addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Arabs of Israel can no longer be ignored, whether by Israel or the Arab world.