Israel’s Arab members of Knesset do not provide their constituents with quality representation. If one were to judge merely by their statements and antics one would conclude that they work more on behalf of Palestinians than they do on behalf of those who elected them. It is one of the great tragedies that Israel’s Arabs participate in a robust democratic system and yet their elected representatives have done them little service over the last 60 years.
According to the Knesset Web site there have been 45 Arab MKs since the establishment of the state (by contrast there have been 13 Druse and 872 Jewish MKs). Three of the Arab MKs have been women, although two of these were elected as members of Jewish parties (Hosniya Jabarra of Meretz and Labor’s Nadia Hilou). There are nine Arab members of the current Knesset. They are Hadash’s Muhammad Barakei, Hanna Sweid (Christian); United Arab List-Ta’al’s Talab a-Sanaa (Beduin), Masud Gnaim, Ibrahim Sarsour and Ahmed Tibi, and Balad’s Said Nafa (actually a Druse who defines himself as an Arab), Jamal Zahalka and Haneen Zoabi. The first Knesset included three Arabs; Tawfik Toubi (an extraordinary individual who was born in 1922 in Haifa and served in 12 Knessets as a Communist), Amin-Salim Jarjura, an Ottoman army soldier and mayor of Nazareth, and Seif e-Din e-Zoubi, who served as an MK from 1949 to 1979 in a variety of parties.
Two of the three Arabs in the first Knesset were members of the Nazareth Democratic Party, which was part of the governing coalition. The Arab party Kidma Ve’avoda served in the second and third Knessets with two members and also participated in the governing coalition. Two other Arab parties, the Democratic List for Israeli Arabs and the Agriculture and Development Party, also supported the government in the state’s early years. In the fourth to eighth Knessets (1959-1977) the Arab party Kidma Ufituah was a member of the coalition. The party Shituf Ve’ahva participated in governments and served in four Knessets. In the eighth Knesset the Arab List for Beduin and Villagers run by Hamad Abu Rabiah joined the coalition.
This long list of Arabs, Muslim and Christian, who served not only in the Knesset but brought their parties into Labor’s governing coalition is unique to the early decades of the state. With the Likud victory in 1977 these parties disappeared. Even when Labor reappeared as the head of the government in the 1990s it did not bring any Arab parties with it into the coalition. The reason for the disappearance of these Arab parties is that the Arab community in Israel began to elect more extreme voices from their community.
DURING THE eighth Knesset (1974-1977) the two Arab parties Kidma Ufituah and Arab List for Beduin and Villagers merged to form the United Arab List, which has survived in various forms to the present day. Hadash, which bills itself as a Jewish-Arab communist party, emerged from a coalition of Rakach (the Arab Community party) and extreme leftist Jewish allies in 1977. It has served in every Knesset since.
In 1988 the Arab Democratic Party was formed by Abdul Wahab Darawshe of Iksal. Along with Taleb a-Sanaa he joined the United Arab List in the 1990s. The party’s platform included recognition of the PLO, withdrawal from the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s Ahmed Tibi joined the Knesset as part of the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al). Also in the late 1990s Balad, under the leadership of Azmi Bishara of Nazareth, joined the Knesset. It remains in the Knesset minus Bishara, who fled Israel after being accused of spying for Hizbullah several years ago.
The story of the Arab members of the Knesset is the story of a great failure. National minorities in other countries, such as the Basques, the Irish (UK), the Quebecois or African-Americans have generally elected representatives who cared about their interests and worked on their behalf.
But when Tibi, in the course of condemning Holocaust denial, links the Holocaust to the suffering in Gaza (“the victim’s victim”) is he helping his community? When Bishara fed Hizbullah intelligence was he helping his people in Nazareth, whose members were being struck down by Hizbullah rockets? When Said Nafa of Balad met Khaled Mashaal of Hamas in Syria was he helping his constituents?
Israel’s Arab MKs have gone from being close advisers to the government coalition to raving, angry extremists who spend most of their time complaining about their “Palestinian brothers” and taking little interest in their actual brothers and sisters.
Their failures harm the Israeli-Arab community, which deserves better but has been convinced that to be “loyal Arabs” they must vote for extreme voices rather than “collaborationist” voices of moderation.
It is their loss, and their continued estrangement from Israel and the continued aspersions cast on their loyalty by some on the Israeli Right will continue as long as they refuse to awake from 30 years of electoral slumber.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University.