Israel's Political Untouchables

3-17-15 Israel Elections 9
Netanyahu’s victory on Tuesday was propelled in part by fear of a voting bloc long seen as the eternal opposition: Israeli-Arabs. Ammar Awad/Reuters

There's a big map of the Middle East hanging in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem. It's desert-colored, a bit out of date and takes up half a wall. Almost every Israeli recognizes this map, as Netanyahu often uses it in campaign videos and speeches to emphasize the Jewish state's dangerous neighborhood.

On Tuesday, as Netanyahu battled for his political life, he once again resorted to geography. Standing in front of the map, his head somewhere between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the prime minister made his final plea to Israeli voters. "The right-wing's rule is in danger," he warned. "Arab voters are moving in vast numbers to the polling stations."

It was a sentence that will linger long after the election is over. Arabs—not Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza, but citizens of Israel, people who legally live, work, vote and go to school within its internationally recognized borders—are apparently now among the threats on Netanyahu's wall.

The gambit may have worked for the longtime Israeli leader. Though many polls predicted the prime minister would lose to his rival, Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu's Likud party won the election with 30 seats. And now Bibi—as he's known in Israel—seems set to be sworn in for his fourth term as prime minister. It's a historic achievement for the 65-year-old politician. Only David Ben Gurion, the founder of the Jewish state, has ever won as many terms in office.

Yet Netanyahu's words may come back to haunt him. Arab-Israelis comprise 20 percent of the population in Israel. Traditionally, the parties that represent them in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, have avoided joining any ruling coalition. In the Israeli political sphere, Arab parties have largely been seen as the eternal opposition in the Jewish state—untouchables often suspected of being a fifth column for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. But the opposite has also been true: Many Arab politicians haven't wanted to officially join a ruling government that's long left them marginalized in Israeli society.

Nevertheless, the Arab parties have often voted with left-wing, Labor-led political groups when necessary, and some Arab politicians have even received prominent positions in past governments. In the early 1990's, Israeli-Arab political support was critical in preventing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's coalition from falling apart during the Oslo Peace Accords.

After Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, the cooperation vanished. Dwindling voter participation rates among Israeli-Arabs indicated many had become jaded about a political system that openly discriminated against them in housing, employment and land use. In the general elections of 2009, for instance only half of Arab-Israelis voted, compared to roughly two-thirds among Jewish Israelis.

Yet it may have been the legacy of Rabin's working relationship with the Arab parties that frightened Netanyahu in the run-up to Tuesday's contest. In order to win, Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, would almost certainly have needed to rely on some form of support from Arab leaders to form a coalition.

Whether he—or they for that matter—were prepared to reach across the aisle remains to be seen. But for the first time in 50 years, Israeli-Arabs united under the banner of one party, The Joint List. Led by Ayman Oudeh, a 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa, the party came together as a way to get around new voter thresholds that would have doomed Arab political parties had they run individually.

Weeks before the election, Oudeh reached out to the Israeli left in an apparent effort to forge some sort of alliance. He also antagonized the Israeli right. In a televised debate with Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the Yisrael Beitenu party whose campaign ads promised to ensure that some Arab-Israeli cities would ultimately come under control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. "We want to be a part of the Israeli society," Oudeh calmly told the raging minister. "We want influence, but we cannot do it alone. We need Jewish partners."

Days before the election, Oudeh even began reminiscing about the Rabin days as "the best parliamentary times for the Arabic parties"—a sign perhaps that he was willing to support Herzog, at least outside the coalition.

In the end, the Joint List received 14 seats in the Knesset, making it the third largest group in Israeli parliament. The Jewish left came up short for the sixth time since 2001, a clear indication that the country continues to tilt to the right. And going forward, left-leaning Jewish Israeli politicians may have to find a way to work with their Israeli-Arab counterparts if they ever want a chance to form a ruling government.

The Arab parties, too, may have to remain open to working with their left-wing Jewish counterparts. Netanyahu's victory has real political implications, both in terms of the West's relationship with Iran and Israel's chance to peacefully co-exist with the Palestinians. But the Joint List's strong showing will largely be symbolic unless the party can find formal, permanent allies among Jewish Israeli voters.

"People voted for us out of protest, not because they want us to join a government," says Sami El-Ali, a member of the Joint List's campaign team. "They see the level of racism in the public sphere, they see how Netanyahu speaks, and they want to show them that we can be strong."

"To tell the truth," he adds, "Some of our voters told me yesterday they were happy with Netanyahu's video. They saw it as a sign of strength, because you could see in his eyes he was really afraid of us."

With Jonathan Broder in Washington, D.C.