34. Arab Party in the Israeli Government: Is It Significant?

If all goes as planned, there will soon be a new Israeli government without Bibi Netanyahu but with an independent Arab party in the governing coalition. Is this an important step toward the better integration of the Palestinian Arab minority citizens of Israel?

Yes. The new government, including parties with diametrically opposed positions, will not be making any significant progress on broader Israeli-Palestinian issues. But on narrower issues of immediate concern to the Arab sector of Israeli society, the inclusion of the United Arab List (Ra'am), with its four seats vital to a majority, should produce significant concessions in the time-honored pattern of Israeli party politics. This has worked for religious parties; why not for others?

It certainly comes at a good moment, so soon after the disastrous and largely unprecedented outbreak of violence between Jewish and Arab hooligans within Israel during the war with Hamas.

On broader Israeli-Palestinian issues -- reviving the peace process? -- this government would be paralyzed in any event, with or without Ra'am. It will be led for the first two years by a Prime Minister who once headed the leading organization of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but will also include the most dovish Jewish parties.

But even a left-wing government would have trouble reviving meaningful negotiations, so long as Hamas controls Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is too weak to compromise on the key issues of Jerusalem and the refugees of 1948-49.

But an Arab party in the government can address issues of immediate concern to its constituents, issues that even right-wing Israeli parties cannot challenge in principle: equality of local budgets, ending demolition of homes built without hard-to-obtain permits, recognizing Bedluin towns in the Negev (a key part of Ra'am's constituency0.

One particular concern is a wave of violent crime in Arab neighborhoods, producing the unusual image of a minority pushing for a greater, or at least more effective, police presence.

Technically, this is actually not the first time an Arab party has been part of a governing coalition. From 1949 to 1974, Arab "satellite" lists of Jewish parties were formally included in governments, though they did not get a seat at the table (apart from a Deputy Minister in 1971-1974). But these lists were simply appendages to Jewish partiies; Ra'am is the first independent and representative Arab party to join a government as a full-fledged participant in the rough and tumble of Israeli coalition politics.

Pedants like myself will also point out that Yitzhak Rabin, during the years 1993-95, relied on the votes of two Arab parties, from the outside, to maintain his majority. But this outside support did not entitle them to a share of the spoils.

Through all this time, the idea of a "real" Arab partner in the government was considered a non-starter, even for governments of the left. Ironically, it was Bibi Netanyahu himself who helped legitimize the idea by negotiating with Ra'am to form his own government. Instead he paved the way to his own ouster.

This time an Arab party has shown that it can master the arcane maneuvers of Jewish politics in Israel. Israeli political life may never be quite the same again.