The giant yellow billboard near the Arab town of Nahef in northern Israel declares in Arabic, “This time, we are the decision-makers.” It is a reminder to the nearly 2 million Arab citizens of Israel that in this election, which will be held on September 17, they could decide Israel’s future as a democratic state. Their votes, should they choose to wield them, have the power to end the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Long relegated to the margins of Israeli politics, Arab voters are playing a central part in this do-over election, triggered when the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, voted to dissolve itself after Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition following an election in April. Arab voters suddenly find themselves under a spotlight from every direction. On the right, they are being weaponized to scare Israelis into going to the polls and keeping “Bibi,” as Netanyahu is popularly known, in power. On the left, Arab voters are being actively courted by Israeli politicians who finally understand that they need their support to unseat Netanyahu.
There are, of course, obstacles on all fronts. This is, after all, Israel. Arab-majority parties have never served in any Israeli government, and have historically refused to join any governing coalition. Jewish parties, in turn observing a reciprocal taboo, have ruled out forming a governing coalition with them. These hardened positions now appear to be melting.
Arab citizens represent a fifth of Israel’s population. They speak Hebrew and participate in nearly every facet of Israeli life, working as doctors in hospitals, teachers in schools. They have run in every election and been elected to every Knesset since the first elections in 1949. Yet, for decades, they have been treated by Israeli politicians as a fifth column that cannot be trusted. [Continue reading…]